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Book Review

The Foghorn's Lament - The Disappearing Music of the Coast

By RJ Heller


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By Jennifer Lucy Allan, White Rabbit, The Orion Publishing Group, 2022, softcover, $19.99

“Like an empty bed beside you all night long, and like an empty house when you open the door... a sound that’s so alone that no one can miss it” —Ray Bradbury


The sound is magical. Grey sky, grey sea, the salt air held in a grey-colored trance by wet fog. Then that sound reverberates in, around, right thru to your soul. There is nothing quite like the sound of a foghorn when one is at sea or huddled somewhere inside with the windows open. The sound finds you, alerts you and soothes.

In The Foghorn’s Lament, author Jennifer Lucy Allan brings her formidable knowledge of foghorns and the “music” they once gave to seamen and landlubbers alike all together to tell an important story. Those seeking to learn the foghorn’s origin, mechanics and their diminishing future —as their days are sinking low — along with the sounds they once made in abundance along the coastlines of England and the United States, will find this book is a buoy to that story.

This, Allan’s first book, provides a treasure trove of information about foghorns — their history, their construction — and most importantly, the songs and music their sounds inspired. Allan is a writer, journalist and broadcaster with a PhD in foghorns. For over a decade, she has written about underground and experimental music for the Guardian, The Quietus, and The Wire.

“I want to experience a place, to get as close as possible to what it would be like to live with this sound, to understand the rhythms of the weather and movements of the tides. To understand the foghorn, I need to know the people it came from but also the place, and the natural theatre it plays to.”

And experience she does, as she travels from Scotland to San Francisco seeking to learn as much as she can about the music that once sang from coastlines dotted with lighthouses. This is a book filled with many examples of the social and cultural history of foghorns. The depth of information is presented in a comfortable cadence of writing that offers plenty of information, while touching on the essential essence that lies at the heart of the foghorn sound and its human connection.

The story of a sound that emanates from the shore to the sea is also about people, place and time. Allan points out that the foghorn sound was not one widely accepted when first introduced in Britain and North America. In fact, there were plenty of nineteenth-century noise complaints.

“The foghorn started as an unwelcome sound, an intrusion into the domestic life of not just lighthouse keepers and their families, but the towns and houses of anyone near enough to be within earshot. From far away, the guttural bark of a diaphone is reduced to a comfortable moo, but sometimes the weather gods conspired to carry the guttural sound over water, through streets and houses to make it sound like the horn was right outside your window.”

Over time, the foghorn became an accepted sound in a natural landscape, a theatre if you will, that eventually embraced it, even becoming so popular its sound started getting cameos in film, literature and music. It became a constant in a world that was changing at a rapid pace in the twentieth century. Allan brilliantly details this transition with example after example.

And the natural theatre that Allan references throughout the book is where the true heart of this story lies; for it closely examines the changing dynamics of foghorn sounds throughout its history. That sound, too, Allan explains, speaks differently when one is on shore, in a lighthouse or miles out to sea. The sound is both a solitary, personal voice and a communal voice connecting us all in a very real and essential way. It is also a sound that is so distant today it can catch us off guard, even surprise us.

“The old foghorns are not quite dead, but they’re not alive either. Catching a sounding is like catching sight of a rare bird — you have to be in the right place at the right time, in the right season — although unlike bird watching you often have to know someone who has the key to the engine room and can wake the beast.”

Today, when a foghorn sounds, its music can trigger memories that transport us to another time and place. The sound may be sadly vanishing from the periphery of life, both on land and on the sea, but it is the journey of that particular sound that also takes with it a way of life for those who battled the sea, lived, loathed and eventually fell in love with it. Allan’s book contains it all and will delight anyone looking to be a part of that journey. As one reviewer said: “It shows how there can be a whole world to discover in just one sound.” I whole-heartedly agree.

This story appeared in the Sep/Oct 2022 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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