I first came across the “Jonestown death tape” while searching for public domain audio speech files to use in musical compositions. I was immediately struck by the emotional impact of the tape. Indeed, I found listening to it as compelling as watching an opera or movie. The voice of Jim Jones combined with the cheers of the crowd, the screams of dying children and weeping mothers, and the eerie distortions on the tape create a truly disturbing listening experience. And it became obvious that this was only the final scene in a much larger story.
The rest of this story would unfold over long hours listening to the many other tapes recorded by Peoples Temple. These tapes tell the stories of daily life in Jonestown – agriculture meetings, news, rallies, phone calls, radio conversations, music, poetry, and interviews – and from a sonic perspective, they are a goldmine. Not only do they provide a massive sample of the voice of Jim Jones but many lesser known members of the Jonestown community as well. This provides a large timbral pallet for use in musical composition. Each speaker has a unique voice, rhythm and message to tell.
One gem is Q693 pt. 2 in which Marceline Jones, the wife of Jim Jones, calls their estranged daughter Suzanne, who has defected from the Temple and is living in San Francisco. Recorded a month before the deaths in Jonestown, it’s a heartbreaking conversation between members of a fractured family. Another, Q436 pt. 1, included portions of a Temple service in Los Angeles led by Marceline. Several tapes usually marked “entertainment” are filled with music and poetry performed by Temple members dedicated mostly to socialism and racial equality. The majority of the tapes, however, feature the voice of Jim Jones. His laughter, drugged stupors, violent outbursts, kind assurances, fear-mongering, singing, heroic rhetoric, and much more are all preserved.
The more I listened, the more I felt the need to help share this story. The people of Jonestown had a noble cause. They wanted a more fair society and were willing to travel to an unknown land to build it themselves. They shared a common frustration with the corruption, war and inequality they experienced in America. But they had the idealism to believe that they could create their own utopia. Jim Jones, their leader and father, was a dynamic individual. Many in the community would follow him to the ends of the earth. Others were forced to. Their sacrifice cannot be forgotten.
More than 35 years later, our society is still struggling with many of the same issues. But I believe we’re learning how to change. We’ve seen the dangers of radical groups and violent revolution. We’ve watched peaceful protest create change. We continue to make progress through cultural revolution. But in every age there are false prophets. For this reason, we remember Jim Jones.
The Jonestown Project is being written for The Underground Brass featuring David Whitwell on tenor trombone, David Taylor on bass trombone and Jay Rozen on tuba. The electroacoustic work will feature their virtuosic technique and musical vocabulary against an electronic orchestration of the many voices of Jonestown.
(Jacob Elkin is a freelance trombonist, composer and arranger in NYC. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)