Blind Tom Wiggins, Composer & Performer
"As a proof of his extraordinary musical gifts, Blind Tom invites any member of the audience to play any piece of music unknown to him, and he, after a first hearing, re-plays it with the most perfect accuracy, however intricate or elaborate in harmony. He can also analyse any chord or discord struck on the instrument, if he is within hearing, naming almost as rapidly as they are struck, each individual note. As an add itional proof of his remarkable powers of imitation, he gives recitations in Greek Latin, German, French, as well as imitations of the Scotch bagpipe, the musical box, the hurdy-gurdy, the Scotch fiddler, the American stump orator comic speakers, and, in short, any sound he may hear."
Anecdotes, songs, sketches of the life, testimonials of musicians and savans, and
opinions of the American and English press, of 'Blind Tom.'"
John Law, from Blind Tom's concert brochure
"The blind negro Tom has been performing here to a crowded house. He is certainly a wonder.... He resembles any ordinary negro boy 13 years old and is perfectly blind and an idiot in everything but music, language, imitation, and perhaps memory. He has never been instructed in music or educated in any way. He learned to play the piano from hearing others, learns airs and tunes from hearing them sung, and can play any piece on first trial as well as the most accomplished performer..."
"He [Tom] lorded it over the emotions of his audiences 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; and now and then he threw in queer imitations of the groaning and wheezing of bag-pipes that sent the rapt silence into tempests of laughter."
It was a fair audience that gathered at the Lansing last night to listen to Blind Tom. Certainly the man was worth hearing, at least once. Probably there has never been seen on the stage a stranger figure or one more uncanny. He is a human phonograph, a sort of animated memory, with sound producing powers.
A biography with links to contemporary accounts of Blind Tom. "One common thread of explanation found in all attempts to explain Tom by those who witnessed his performances is that he embodied the spirit of a higher power."
Battle of Manassas was written by Thomas Wiggins (aka "Blind Tom") at the age of 12. It is a programmatic work which describes the first major battle of the Civil War. As with many of his compositions, Wiggins introduced the work in the third person, from his manager's perspective:
"Tom will now play for you his Battle of Manassas. This is a piece of his own conception of a battle.
"The circumstances under which he produced it were these: soon after the battle occurred, I happened to a very serious accident which kept me in Nashville [Tennessee] for several months. Tom was often in my room. Every little paragraph about the battle was discussed in various forms for a week or more. He heard this thing read of and talked of, and after hearing it for ten days he took his seat at the piano and produced what he will now play for you; and when asked what that was he was playing, his reply was, that it was his Battle of Manassas.
"In the first place he will represent the Southern Army leaving home to their favorite tune of 'The Girl I Left Behind Me,' which you will hear in the distance, growing louder and louder as they approach Manassas (the imitation of the drum and fife). He will represent the Grand Union Army leaving Washington [DC] to the tune of 'Dixie.' You will all recollect that their papers, and our papers, and their prisoners, spoke of the fact that when the Grand Union Army left Washington, not only their bands were playing 'Dixie,' but their men were also singing it.
"He will represent the eve of battle by a very soft sweet melody, then the clatter of arms and accoutrements, the war trumpet of [General P. G. T.] Beauregard, which you will hear distinctly; and then [General Irvin] McDowell's in the distance, like an echo of the first. He will represent the firing of the cannon to 'Yankee Doodle,' Marseillaise Hymn, Star-Spangled Banner, 'Dixie,' and the arrival of the train of cars containing General Kirby Smith's reinforcements; which you will all recollect was very valuable to General Beauregard upon that occasion, after the arrival of which the fighting will grow more severe, and then the retreat."
Because he could not work, Blind Tom wandered around the Bethune plantation and got interested about the music played by Bethune's daughters. He is recorded to have played tunes he hard heard at the age of 4, before he had learned to speak.
One night, sometime in the summer of that year, Mr. Oliver's family were wakened by the sound of music in the drawing-room: not only the simple airs, but the most difficult exercises usually played by his daughters, were repeated again and again, the touch of the musician being timid, but singularly true and delicate. Going down, they found Tom, who had been left asleep in the hall, seated at the piano in an ecstasy of delight, breaking out at the end of each successful fugue into shouts of laughter, kicking his heels and clapping his hands. This was the first time he had touched the piano.
O Father, if to all could come / The things revealed to poor Blind Tom, / We, too, would clap our hands in glee, / Rejoiced thy wondrous truths to see. / The scales would leave our blinded eyes, / And earth would be a paradise / Where creed and color, tongue and clime / Would melt away like morning rime; / And, like poor Tom, with self unsought, / All should make melody untaught.
At age 11, in 1860, Tom played at the White House before President James Buchanan. Several musicians, who felt Tom had tricked the public and the President, tested him at his hotel the following day. They played two completely new compositions. The first, 13 pages in length, Tom repeated from beginning to end without effort or error, and the second, 20 pages in length, he also played to perfection.
Although he sustained a career that spanned 50 years and performed for all manner of distinguished critics and adoring crowds, the artist, Thomas Greene Wiggins, known to his fans as Blind Tom, lived a life filled with controversy and with exploitation of Dickensian proportions. His career remains a disturbing mystery.
Wiggins was possessed of a phenomenal musical memory and was said to be able to perform some seven thousand piano compositions. His concerts nearly always featured a challenge in which a member of the audience was invited to the stage to play anything he liked, preferably an original work. No matter what it was, Wiggins, who was also known for his odd grunting and contortions onstage, would play it right back, fumbles and all. (Mark Twain, a Blind Tom fan, once referred to him as an "inspired idiot.") In addition, Wiggins was capable of extraordinary feats of musical dexterity. At an 1865 concert in Philadelphia, for example, he astonished the crowd by playing "Fisher's Hornpipe" in C major with his right hand and "Yankee Doodle" in D major with his left, even as he sang"Tramp! Tramp! Tramp!" in C-sharp major. By the time of his death, in 1908, he was no longer performing (though several Blind Tom impostors were plying the vaudeville circuit), and, owing to either indifference or parsimoniousness, he was buried at the Evergreens in an unmarked grave.
The pianist and composer Thomas Wiggins possessed a phenomenal musical memory and was said to be able to perform some seven thousand piano compositions. His concerts nearly always featured a challenge in which a member of the audience was invited to the stage to play anything he liked, preferably an original work.
The configuration of traits of intellect, mental energy, and temperament with which Isaac Newton revolutionized the world of science were the consequence of a genetic lottery that occurred about nine months prior to his birth.
Born to slaves in Georgia, the infant Thomas was an autistic savant; from his early years he showed an uncanny ability to mimic sounds, and to play songs on the piano without any training. By the age of 6 he was creating musical compositions. His owner General James Bethune "hired him out" to a concert promoter, and Thomas became famous as a musical prodigy. Even after Emancipation, General Bethune retained control of Thomas (and the money he earned), until Thomas' mother won a legal battle for custody with the help of Bethune's daughter-in-law. Robert Heinlein may have learned about Blind Tom from Mark Twain's descriptions of him in speeches and writings, including diary entries.
Battling blindness, autism, and overwhelming prejudice, Tom remained in the "protective" custody of his master's family long after the abolition of slavery - the one slave Honest Abe never freed. His savant-like memory enabled him to play every composition he had ever heard back with exacting precision - including mistakes, both forwards and backwards.
Blind Tom, The Last Legal Slave in America, was born in 1849, Thomas Greene Bethune was the son of field slaves, but over the course of a 50 year career, his dazzling skills at the piano enthralled audiences worldwide. With no formal musical training, "Blind Tom" mesmerized even President Buchanan and a crowd of luminaries at a command performance at the White House. Few remember, however, that "Blind Tom" remained a slave - the last legal slave - until 1908.
The blind pianist had so many vaudeville imitators claiming to be him that people at his 1908 funeral debated whether the body they were burying was the authentic Blind Tom.
Uncovering a little-known historical world where classical music and African-American culture were intertwined, three years ago (John) Davis created Will the Real Thomas Wiggins Please Stand Up, a multimedia one-man show based on Blind Tom's life and compositions.
His life was full of contradictions. "He had a strange walk and would sway and twitch when he played the piano," Capelouto says. "He could mimic whatever he heard, even in foreign languages, but rarely expressed his own thoughts."
Burial: Evergreens Cemetery, Brooklyn, Kings County, New York, USA. Plot: Pleasant Hill Section, Lot D
Wiggins is now believed to be one of history's most accomplished autistic savants - a term that refers to individuals who suffer from autism but exhibit extraordinary skills in areas such as math, art or music.
Thomas Greene Wiggins was born on the Wiley Edward Jones plantation in Harris County, Georgia on May 25, 1849. He came into the world blind and autistic but a musical genius with a phenomenal memory. Even after Emancipation, his former owners kept him, in the words of the late author Geneva Handy Southall, "Continually Enslaved".
Blind Tom died at age fifty-nine on June 13, 1908 in Hoboken, New Jersey... Newspaper coverage reported that Tom was buried in Evergreens Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York. However, over the ensuing decades, controversy has surrounded Blind Tom's final resting place.
One of the most famous and highly paid musicians of the 19th century was born a slave near Columbus Georgia in 1849. The name Blind Tom was virtually forgotten to history for most of the 20th century until John Davis came across sheet music for an original Blind Tom composition.
Concerned that the dismissal of Blind Tom as an idiot savant "natural musician" was false, Southall launched into 30 years of research, resulting in three books on Blind Tom, as well as recordings in the 1980s of her own performances of many of his compositions -- winning recognition as the authoritative expert on this long-misrepresented American artist.
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In other words: Sublime or ridiculous? You decide!
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This page was last updated on 5 November 2008, 3:48 pm
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