Blind Tom: America’s Forgotten Musical Prodigy

I wrote the following article for Louisiana Road Trips Magazine, May, 2015:

Blind Tom:  America’s Forgotten Musical Prodigy

     The Ouachita Telegraph, Friday, January 20, 1883, Page 3, Column 1:  “The concerts given by Blind Tom, the musical phenomonen [sic], at the Opera House Friday and Saturday, including matinee, were largely attended – in fact the house was crowded on the first night; nor was there any deception from what was anticipated of this wonderful genius, who is undoubtedly unrivalled as a pianist.  His rendition of the “Battle of Manassas,” wherein he displayed the marching of the troops; the music of the fife and drums and the discharge of artillery simultaneously was beyond comparison, while his execution of three popular airs at one time, proved conclusively that Tom has musical powers extending beyon[d] the scope of any other professional artist in his line.

     Thomas Greene Wiggins, known as “Blind Tom” was born a slave on the Wiley Edward Jones Plantation in Harris Co. GA on May 25, 1849.  When his parents and two brothers were sold at auction, Tom was “thrown-in” as a bargain.  He was about a year old.  You see, Tom was born blind and mentally handicapped.  He would never work in the fields or in the Big House. His new “owner” Col. James N. Bethune, pretty much ignored the little boy.  His mother protected him as much as she could, fearing he would be sold, or worse, killed.  One day, just before the little boy turned four years old, The Colonel heard piano music coming from the parlor.  Upon investigation, he found that little Tom had been listening to the Bethune daughters practice their piano lessons.  Tom was playing as best he could by ear.  Col. Bethune began to ponder.

      The entire Bethune family taught little Tom to associate words with objects.  Mary Bethune, one of the Colonel’s daughters, began to teach him piano.    By the time he was six, he was composing songs.  He would imitate the sounds he heard into music.  The sound of the rain falling on the roof turned into The Rain Storm.   His most popular song was The Battle of Manassas, written after hearing one of the Bethune boys’ account of the battle.  Tom could imitate any sound he heard and repeat ten minute conversations back verbatim.  The Bethune family soon trotted him out to play for guests as entertainment. 

     As Tom became more proficient at the piano, Col. Bethune exhibited him around the state of Georgia to sold out crowds.  He soon became the talk of the nation.  He was even asked to perform before President Buchanan!  Mark Twain himself attended several concerts.  He described Tom’s performance in one of his writings:

A month or two ago I attended his performances three nights in succession. If ever there was an inspired idiot this is the individual. He lorded it over the emotions of his audience like an autocrat. He swept them like a storm, with his battle-pieces; he lulled them to rest again with melodies as tender as those we hear in dreams; he gladdened them with others that rippled through the charmed air as happily and cheerily as the riot the linnets make in California woods; and now and then he threw in queer imitations of the tuning of discordant harps and fiddles, and the groaning and wheezing of bag-pipes, that sent the rapt silence into tempests of laughter. And every time the audience applauded when a piece was finished, this happy innocent joined in and clapped his hands, too, and with vigorous emphasis. It was not from egotism, but because it is his natural instinct to imitate pretty much every sound he hears. 

     Of course, we know now that Tom was exhibiting all the signs of an Autistic Savant.  This was unheard of in Victorian times, so most people thought it was a trick.  To dispel that rumor, musicians were invited to compose their own songs and play them for Tom.  He would play them back perfectly.  He could even play two songs at once while singing a third!  Tom toured the US and abroad constantly up until a stroke in 1904.  Another stroke took his life in 1908. 

     I have only barely touched the surface of Tom’s life and career.  His life seems on the outside to have been very happy.  However, he was never truly free.  He was kept as a slave in every way but name, long after the Civil War ended.  He is now being rediscovered.  Two books have been written:  Blind Tom, The Black Pianist-Composer Continually Enslaved by Geneva Handy Southall and The Ballad of Blind Tom Slave Pianist:  America’s Lost Musical Genius by Deirdre O’Connell.  Elton John wrote a song about him called The Ballad of Blind Tom.  If you want to hear some of the songs Tom wrote, I encourage you do download the album, John Davis Plays Blind Tom.  Listen and be amazed.


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