Sounding Calls

The word “sounding,” meaning the measurement of water depth, comes from an Old English word meaning water or sea and has nothing to do with audible sound. For riverboat workers on the Mississippi, however, there was a time when sounding the water depth literally involved sound—you could even call it song. In 1939 Alan Lomax and Herbert Halpert, two well-known folklorists, recorded Joe Shores, a 52-year old river pilot for a ferryboat that ran between Greenville, Mississippi and Arkansas City, Arkansas performing what is called a “sounding call.” In the recording Shores slowly chants or sings out verses of terms for the depth of the water:

No bottom, / Mark four, / Quarter less four, / Quarter less five, / Half twain, / Quarter twain…

Quarter less four, / Half twain, / Quarter twain, / Mark twain, / Quarter less twain, / Nine and a half feet, / Nine feet, / Eight and a half feet.

To modern listeners this may sound unfamiliar and might not make sense, but to people living and working along the Mississippi it was once a distinct soundmark of river life. Just as you might rely on a landmark—a tree, a hill, or a familiar building—to identify your location, a unique sound, or soundmark, can evoke the soundscape of a particular time and place. Recordings like this hark back to a forgotten Mississippi River life and give us the opportunity to experience a past landscape that was far from silent. Soundmarks, like landmarks, also carry different meanings for different people. Listening to history can remind us how people experienced a landscape and how sound itself can reflect and enforce the social and racial divisions of a particular time and place.

Occupational Lore

Most centrally, listening to this sounding call from an active river pilot uncovers forgotten occupational lore of Mississippi boat travel. Sounding calls come from a time when the river was less controlled by humans and certainly more dangerous for navigation. Riverboat pilots had to be constantly aware of the river’s depth because running aground, especially at night or in bad weather, was a real threat. Today, Mississippi riverboats use electronic gauges that relay water depth every second, but before the 1930s boat pilots had to come up with other ways of quickly determining the depth.

Pilots might spend years “cubbing,” or apprenticing, learning the river before they could obtain a pilot’s license. In his account of steamboat life on the Upper Mississippi, George Byron Merrick recalls how a pilot had to know the river intimately as if having “a photographic negative in his mind, showing the shape of all the curves, bends, capes, and points of the river’s banks, so that he might shut his eyes, yet see it all.” An experienced pilot could also “read the river,” gauging where it was safely deep or perilously shallow by the wind direction and the size of waves on the river’s surface. But rivers, especially the Mississippi, are notoriously difficult to read, and the eye or memory cannot always be trusted. The current is constantly shifting treacherous sandbars beneath the surface. Some situations, like crossing the river or traveling through fog, demand a quick assessment of the underwater terrain.

Life on the Mississippi, 1883.

“Let a Leadsman Cry, ‘Half Twain.'” Life on the Mississippi, 1883. Public domain.

This responsibility was entrusted to the boat’s “leadsmen,” named for their lead weighted sounding lines. Two leadsmen, stationed on opposites side of the boat, would wait for a signal from the pilot, which was often a whistle or bell—as Shores explains in the recording, one sounding of the bell for starboard (right), two for the port side (left). Upon the signal from the pilot, the leadsmen would toss a lead weighted rope with depth intervals marked by strips of leather, which allowed them to determine the depth even in the dark. Communicating the depth back to the pilot across a large steamer wasn’t easy, especially through wind and rain, so leadsmen would often call the depth as loud and as long as they could. Some leadsmen used different rhythms and melodies to help to distinguish between depths. This iterative process would often continue minute by minute down the river—bell, call, bell, call—providing pilots with the information they needed to carefully “feel the way” around an unseen landscape of threatening sandbars and reefs.

Cultural Soundscape

Still, a careful listening tells us that sounding calls were much more than an inventive solution to the challenges of river navigation. For one thing, Shore’s performance reminds us that the landscape and life of the Mississippi river didn’t just look different in the past, but felt and sounded different. Sounding calls were only parts of a multi-layer cultural soundscape, mixed with churning engines, washing water, shouts, bells, whistles, and work songs. The folklorist Benjamin Botkin tells us that for river workers, “it used to be a point of pride to be able to recognize the approach of an important boat by the sound of her whistle or bell.” And yet, accounts and descriptions suggest that the meaning of sounding calls ran much deeper than sound. They were not just background ambiance or an auditory signal—they became an important soundmark infused with the culture of the river and its people. The fact that Samuel Clemens adopted the pen name “Mark Twain,” the call for water 12 feet deep, underscores the greater cultural significance of these calls.

Although the calls were often described as monotonic chants, some turned their calls into elaborate songs (another recording by Herbert Halpert in same year titled “Heaving the Lead Line” is an example). A steamer’s crew could often recognize leadsmen by their voices and styles and some leadsmen were considered better callers than others. The sound of sounding calls could also be evocative and emotional. In his memoir Life on the Mississippi, Mark Twain—a river boat pilot himself—recalls that “often there is a deal of fun and excitement about sounding, especially if it is a glorious summer day.” Tee Collins, on the other hand, a retired leadsmen interviewed by the folklorist Mary Wheeler in the 1940s, remembered how “leadin’ sounds real lonesome at night.”

Deckhands on a steamboat, date unknown. Photo courtesy of Cincinnati Library.

Deckhands on a steamboat, date unknown. Photo courtesy of Cincinnati Library.

Disparity of Experience, A Violent Picturesque

This disparity of experience, between Twain, a white pilot, and Collins, a black leadsman, underscores how sound can both hold different meanings for different people and can reflect and reinforce the class and racial structures of the landscape. As the historian Thomas Buchannan points out, the brutality of slavery and the steamboat economy were intimately connected—slaves supplied both the goods below deck and much of the back-breaking labor above. Given that most accounts of sounding calls and work songs from the Mississippi are whites observing blacks, sounding calls were certainly an important soundmark of the river for black Americans, like Collins and Brown, but one with very different associations and feelings. Sounding calls give us an opportunity to explore this disparity of experience.

Twain—along with the captain, officers, and wealthy passengers—could comfortably listen to sounding calls aboard the upper decks. The pilot Merrick observed how the process of sounding was of “great interest to the tourist,” even a “picturesque … ‘feature’” of the trip. This perception of “picturesque” in the accounts of travelers is significant; some steamer captains even exploited it by having their black American deck hands perform parting songs. In an 1870 Harper’s Magazine article about traveling down the Mississippi, George Nichols recorded his perspective of a picturesque soundscape as the steamer left the dock with “choking gasps from the steam pipes” and the “stentorian” and “mournful” song of the deck hands. Nichols, a wealthy, white, traveler could make this observation comfortably aboard the upper deck. For him, and other travelers, the sounding call was a unique and stirring experience of river travel. Down on the main deck, however, the performers had a very different perspective.

The view from above the river in the pilot house.

The view from above the river in the pilot house. Scriber’s Monthly, 1874.

The most difficult work aboard steamers, including the actual job of leadsman—one of the least glamorous roles—was reserved for slaves or, after the Civil War, free black Americans. William Wells Brown, a well-known abolitionist and writer who was born into slavery, preferred work aboard steamboats over plantations, but described it as “anything but pleasant.” It was often cold, tedious, and dangerous. Many leadsman were also employed as rousters, who had the brutal, night-long job of loading and unloading cargo. For slaves, intermixed with sounding calls were also the frequent sounds of the brutality of slavery. Brown’s account and others depict a soundscape that is hardly picturesque—harsh cursing, beatings, the crack of whips, weeping, chains—sounds that to black Americans brought terror and grief.

Soundmark of Resistance

As dark as steamboat life could be for black Americans, it was not without the hope for freedom, the possibility of resistance, or the opportunity for self-expression. Buchanan sheds light on the experience of black American river workers and the significance of the river life from their perspective. In addition to a deeply rooted cultural association between waterways and freedom, the nature of river work often afforded black Americans increased mobility and autonomy, and for slaves, the opportunity to escape. Steamboat workers traveled much further than most and made connections on shore all along the Mississippi; as a result, they were often viewed as “heroic figures” within black American communities.1 Most importantly, while working aboard the steamer Enterprize, Brown recalls how many slaves saw river work as the best chance to “escape to a land of liberty.”

Some, like Brown, eventually used the opportunity of working on a steamboat to escape, but even for those that could not, river work and its relative autonomy provided black Americans with opportunities for resistance and expression. In addition to “slowdowns”—when slaves intentionally worked slowly to demand better conditions—and direct disobedience, working songs were an important means of resistance. There were songs that mocked captains, passed on secret information, or even passively negotiated for better working conditions. Buchanan also notes how songs were a way for slaves and free blacks to express their culture and “restore their humanity amid the indignities and monotonies of their labor.” Some songs mourned relatives or expressed loneliness, fear, and even joy. Sounding calls, like other work songs, were both a means of resistance and a form of self-expression.

The disparate meanings of the sounding call suggest that just as society was segregated, so was experience, and so were soundscapes. To the pilot high up in the pilot house, the slow chant floating up from the lower deck signified water depth. It might evoke the threat of running aground or the hope for safe passage through the night. To passengers on the upper decks the call was a “picturesque” feature of the river, beautiful, sorrowful, and enchanting. Down by the water, sounding the depth by casting a leadline into the cold water, the leadsmen might be expressing his anger, grief, or hope; but ultimately, he was resisting his oppression, challenging the soundscape of brutality around him by voicing his own sound and forcefully authoring a soundmark of resistance.

An empty dock on the Mississippi River in McGregor, Iowa. Photo by Rebecca Summer.

An empty dock on the Mississippi River in McGregor, Iowa. Photo by Rebecca Summer.

Today, the Mississippi River weaves through a different landscape with a very different soundscape. Long gone are the bells, the “choking gasps” of steamers, and the bustling ports—sounding calls are no longer a soundmark of the river. Still, listening to Shore’s forgotten song is important because it provides us with an opportunity to consider our changing relationship with the river, each other, and the people of the past. It demonstrates how advances in technology have transformed river work, the sounds of labor, and our experience of the river. Leadlines and song have been replaced by sonar and screens, and we consider our own soundscapes: what are the soundmarks of the river today? How are social divisions reflected and reinforced by sound? Finally, the song brings a whole world of past human experience to life—pilots, steamboat travel, deckhands, people who suffered and resisted slavery—reminding us that the echoes of the past can still be heard today.

Featured image: “A Mississippi River Landing,” Memphis, Tennessee, 1906. Photo courtesy of Library of Congress.

Owen Selles is a graduate student at the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies. He is interested in environmental and cultural history, political ecology, and landscape architecture. Contact.

  1. Thomas C. Buchanan, Black Life on the Mississippi: Slaves, Free Blacks, and the Western Steamboat World (University of North Carolina Press, 2006), 8, 78. 

10 Responses

  1. Kathleen says:

    Thanks for posting this. Very cool

  2. Jacl says:

    Great informative article. The mix of description, actual accounts, sound, and photographs congers up a vision of the past free from the usual nostalgia about Mississippi river boats.

  3. Owen S. says:

    Thank you, Kathleen and Jacl. I appreciate the feedback.

  4. Cilla says:

    I have been reading ‘The Riddle of the Sands’, a story in which water depth plays an integral part.
    I found this article from looking up ‘sounding’ and ‘fathom’. Didn’t even know how much a fathom was, and not being a sailor , I previously had no idea of the importance of being able to detect this invisible landscape. Such an interesting piece of writing and I will bore my friends and relatives with my new knowledge. Thank you very much for making it available.

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