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", advises Deirdre O'Connell, author of The Ballad of Blind Tom.
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 enthrall 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.