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.