Blind Tom's civil war
How A Blind Autistic Slave Boy Made White House History
Once upon a time, during an historic election campaign when the now- hallowed Abraham Lincoln was a still presidential nominee, there lived in Georgia a blind, autistic, slave boy with a flawless memory. Folks came far and wide to marvel how he never forgot a thing. At the ripe old age of eleven, he made White House history. Yet today, who even remembers him?
‘Blind Tom’ was born Thomas Greene, died Thomas Wiggins and for much of the time in between was known as Thomas Bethune, his changing surname a measure not of his genealogy but slave status. By the time he arrived in Washington in the summer of 1860, he had been sold on the auction block by a master unwilling to shoulder a ‘useless burden’; groomed for the stage by another master who saw in him the stirrings of a musical prodigy; and licensed out to a Barnum-style showman who touted him as “The Wonder of the World. The Marvel of the Age.”
And indeed, Blind Tom’s powers were inexplicably fantastic. He had a flawless memory, an all-consuming passion for sound and a mind-boggling ability to replicate any sound he heard. Thunderstorms were a particular favorite, as were banjos, fiddles, political speeches and trains. Those lucky enough to attend the private viewing at the Willard Hotel had never seen anything like him.
Tales of Blind Tom’s exploits electrified the nation’s capital. Determined to see if the marvellous claims were true, a bevy of the Southern politicians’ wives arranged a soiree at the home of a Washington doyenne. The slave prodigy not disappoint, playing secondo on a four-handed Rossini arrangement he had never heard before.
A musically-minded guest by the name of Harriet Lane was so impressed that a repeat performance was arranged at her place of residence. The niece and ward of James Buchanan, America’s only bachelor president, Miss Lane by default was America's First Lady. During her time in the executive mansion, she had staged some star-studded music receptions, although the historical significance of her next guest most likely eluded her: Blind Tom was the first African-American performer to officially grace the White House.
The only surviving account of Tom’s historic performance comes courtesy of Alabama socialite, Virginia Clay who was, at first, repelled by the “horrible grimaces” on Blind Tom’s face. But repugnance gave way to disbelief when the slave child bellowed to the young lady alongside him, ‘You cheat me! You cheat me!’ During their duet, it transpired, the girl had skipped a page of sheet music to test him.
Mrs Clay was thunderstruck. No slave addressed the “master race” with such bare-faced impertinence - nor did they get away with it. But remarkably Tom did. He was forever pushing belles off piano stools or commanding them to ‘hash’ with impunity. He was even known to pummel a music teacher for asking too many questions. In the racially oppressive South, this made him an unlikely hero amongst the other slaves - a lone figure who had no fear of white authority and spoke without censure.
In fact, Tom was as oblivious to the slave’s admiration as he was to Mrs Clay’s ire (and his manager’s many deceptions). The world he perceived was alive with vibration. His ear was so sensitive he could ‘see’ objects around him. Yet he knew nothing of concepts like “slavery” and “secession”.
Sure, he understood some people were black and others white, but this meant no more to him than the different colored keys on the piano. Music was the only thing that mattered and this he heard in the roll of the thunder, patter of the rain, roar of the crowd, twitter of gossip and belch of the big-mouthed guns.
Throughout Abraham Lincoln’s presidency and for many decades after, Blind Tom toured the nation, all the while soaking up the turbulent world around him – battles, machines, thunderstorms and days of Jubilee - and reflecting it back in sound, each memory undiluted by time.
Hear the Battle of Manassas through the ears of a fourteen-year-old slave
July 21 was the 150th anniversary of the Civil War’s first land battle, remembered both as the Battle of Manassas and Bull Run. Its passing marks not just a David and Goliath struggle of 15,000 Rebel soldiers triumphing over 50,000 Northerners, but the debut of a Great Big Sound. The decibel hell of war invaded the senses and colonized the air : a rumble louder than thunder, punctuated by the bellow of cannon, dry staccato of artillery, whistle of bullets and shrieks of the wounded.
Few Civil War documents evoke this “fiendish melody” of battle as powerfully as the musical composition of a slave pianist, once known throughout the south as “Blind Tom”. Today Thomas Wiggins might be called a musical autistic savant, but 150 years ago he hovered somewhere between a respected concert pianist and glorified sideshow freak.
In the wave of euphoria after Manassas, Tom tuned his hypersensitive ear into the music of the big-mouthed guns. He then framed these sounds with the South’s triumphant version of events, before composing what many believed was his masterpiece. From April 1862 until his death in 1908, his concerts were not complete without a show-stopping rendition of his Battle of Manassas.
Tom’s impressionistic musical description of the battle pits the harmony of the right hand against the discord of the left. An insistent bass conjures the trudge of marching columns, tonal clusters evoke the roar of cannon and musketry. A brooding soundscape then ducks, weaves and punches its way into a medley of popular and patriotic songs - Yankee Doodle, Dixie, The Star Spangled Banner and Le Marseillaise - discord tugging at the heels of the melody until it finally implodes into the chaos of a harem-scarem finale. “In an age before recorded sound, Blind Tom’s Battle of Manassas was perhaps the only reference point whereby soldiers, citizens and slaves could make sense of the aural assault”, said biographer Deirdre O'Connell, author of The Ballad of Blind Tom.
At first, Southern audiences interpreted Tom’s Battle of Manassas as a measure of his loyalty to the Confederacy. However as rebellion dragged on, his dispassionate journey into the polyphony of battle - conjured as much by vocal effects as the piano - became, in the words of one Southern girl, “too perfect for enjoyment”. For Tom, who cared nothing for politics, this was pure decibel heaven. Nothing cranked it up to eleven quite like the theater of war.
The story of war and music has often been told, from the do-it-yourself tremolo of the Rebel Yell to the heavy metal soundtrack of the Iraq War. Less observed, though twice as audible, is the music that so enraptured young Blind Tom Wiggins in the early days of the war. A shock of noise that redefined the limits of “loud”: a thunder that reverberated somewhere betwixt decibel heaven and hell.
“Fiah Up The Engines”: Blind Tom’s Day of Jubilee
April 16, 1865. Lee’s army had surrendered at Appomattox a week earlier. Sherman was battling Johnson’s beleaguered army in the Carolinas and another advocate of Total War, 28 year old Union cavalryman General James Harrison Wilson, attacked the city of Colombus and began to destroy anything of value. Women and children ran through the streets like people deranged. Wagons choked the outbound roads.
Among them were Blind Tom and his master General James Bethune. Two of tens of thousands of people in motion: a white population fleeing an invading army, grieving the death of their great southern civilization; a black population realizing their dream. After a hundred years of hoping and praying, God had extended His mercy upon the Children of Africa and delivered them from bondage. It was a moment of Biblical proportions akin to Moses leading his people out of Egypt and into the Promised Land.
The first urge for many freed slaves was to roam. They took to the highways and byways, some in search of family; others wandering aimlessly, simply to discover a formerly forbidden world.
General Bethune and Blind Tom’s journey was anything but aimless. They were heading to Florida ready to catch the first blockade runner to Havana, then board a ship for Europe. Anxious that the Yankees might separated Bethune from his valuable slave, the old General stuck to the back lanes, desperate to avoid the scrutiny of Union soldiers. But nowhere could he dodge the thousands savoring their newly found freedom. They gathered at crossroads, shouting and praying with an eloquence that would move a stone.
Though Tom’s conceptual understanding of events was limited, his highly-tuned senses told him the air was now ringing to a different tune: the thunder of war had morphed into the delirium of liberty.
Without documentation, it is difficult to assess the impact of this euphoria on Tom but - as always - there are clues.
In 1934 the Atlanta Constitution published a short memoir by the daughter of a wealthy planter named Gretna Green. About six weeks after surrender in a remote corner of Georgia, five miles shy of the Florida line, she encountered General Bethune and Blind Tom in the elegant drawing room of a fine plantation home: “While the white men conversed”, she recalled, “Tom rocked back and forth on the bench near the door. He kept up a kind of sotto voce soliloquy saying ‘Phew! phew! Fiah up de engine!’ to the great amusement of his young listeners. After a while his master interrupted this peculiar monologue by remarking ‘Tom, suppose you fire up your engine now.’” Cue for Tom to enthral them on the piano.
‘Fire up the engines’ is an expression bound up with the age of steam. A wood-fuel fire could build up a head of steam powerful enough to send a twenty ton locomotive hurtling down a track. The term also had a metaphorical dimension. ‘O, keep the fire burning while your soul’s fired up’, were the words to a spiritual one Columbus-born slave sang as a girl. Others used the phrase to describe the music of fevered jubilation that followed emancipation. “I wuz still firin' de enjin w'en Sherman come”, read the oral history of one Savannah freeman.
For Tom, who loved trains nearly as much as he loved music, the cry ‘fiah up de engine’ proved irresistible. Although precious few trains were ‘firing up’ in Georgia that week — Union soldiers had ripped up the tracks and destroyed bridges while fuel was in desperately short supply — there was an abundance of jubilant souls.
The expression appears to be unique to Tom’s lexicon during this period, None of the many people who later encountered Tom on trains recall him hollering out ‘Fiah up the engines’. Plus it was telling that he enunciated it as he heard it: with a distinct black Southern accent. Could it be that Tom latched onto the phrase during his weeks on the road through the heartlands of Georgia, perhaps so impressed by one freedman’s efforts at firing up the engine, that he adopted the catchcry as his own.
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