"Not A Popular Hero": Guarded Praise for an Outsider Musician

Black newspapers editors struggled to make sense of Blind Tom in 1908. The piano prodigy lived isolated from black communities, under the control of his white managers. Few, if any,  black folk knew him. He was an outsider, an object of suspicion, his condition misunderstood -- although his fame and considerable earning power was a source of great fascination.

This clipping, from the New York Age, July 9, 1908 sums up the guarded praise of the black press. "Blind Tom was not a popular hero nor had other he the gifts than one that dominated his being, but he contributed much to the enjoyment of multitudes of people and left the world better than he found it", wrote the Topeka Plaindealer.

The muted response of the black newspapers pricked the conscience of the New York Age's theatrical editor, Lester A. Walton, who regretted that the editors "did not express any great sorrow over the passing of Blind Tom".  To compensate, he penned a tribute to the mysterious Blind Tom.

Studies for A Strange Fruit Story

Born disabled. Born enslaved.

The fate of disable-born slaves in the American South

“The blind, lunatics, and idiots all would be a tax on the slave master,” lectured an abolitionist in the 1850s. “It would be for his interest to shorten their days.”
Co-joined twins, Millie McKoy and Christina McKoy

Co-joined twins, Millie McKoy and Christina McKoy

Few disabled children born into slavery survived into adulthood.

With no registrar of births or census information to draw on, it is difficult to ascertain what percentage of slaves were disabled, although the evidence may be conspicuous in its absence.

The Georgia Slave Narratives, a vast oral history project conducted by white interviewers in the 1930s, contains two hundred and fifty interviews with former slaves.

The only reference to disabled slave children concerns a blind brother and sister, the children of two runaways who, for years, hid out in a cave. Eventually they were recaptured and it was not long before both of the children were dead.  From illness or a pillow pressed over their faces while their parents worked in the fields? Who can say.

Another narrative tells of an intellectually disabled slave, a “half crazy,” “crack-brained” man whose sister-in-law helplessly watched as an overseer beat him to death.

Unless the slave’s disability was unusual enough to elevate them to the status of a "freak" only a handful of slave owners were prepared to take on the additional expense to feed and clothes someone they could neither work nor sell.

Millie and Christina were on such example. In 1852 the conjoined twins from North Carolina were sold as infants to a circus showman for $10,000 and displayed as the "two-headed girl" in circuses, fairs and freak shows from New Orleans to Montreal. As young children, they were stolen, retrieved and stolen again on three or four occasions, one time then whisked off the Britain.  After a three year search they were tracked down in Birmingham, England and returned to their "rightful" owner and their family in North Carolina.

The pianist Blind Tom Wiggins was another.  Tom was born blind and his mother, Charity, knew his son’s destiny was hanging by a thread.  The man who owned them, Wiley Jones, was very "disappointed,” explained Jones' grandson explained many years later. “He feared the blind boy would become a useless burden.”

Charity’s granddaughter, Elnora Walker, remembered what the implications of this “disappoint” were: “Charity always carried the newborn with her because the whites had threatened to kill him because he was blind.”

Determined to get rid of the blind baby, ten months later Wiley Jones sold Blind Tom and his family at a slave market.

A neighbor, James Bethune, purchased the family -- out of pity, he claimed. “Tom at that stage was simply regarded as an encumbrance,” he later recalled.  Little did Bethune realize that Tom was a musical genius. Over the decades to come, Tom would enrich his master; the act of kindness would prove the best deal of his life.

 

 

 

 

 

Yankee Doodle Dixie

Showmanship came easily to Blind Tom. Even as a child, blending two songs together was one of his favorite tricks,  especially if one of the songs was Yankee Doodle.

A music professor in Georgia remembers watching eight year old Tom play Yankee Doodle on his left hand and the Fishers Hornpipe on his right, the two tunes perfectly blending together. Then Tom would spin around and play the piece with his back to the piano—The Fishers Hornpipe with his left hand and Yankee Doodle on the right.

The outbreak of Civil War in 1861 transformed Yankee Doodle from a minstrel song to a Northern anthem. Tom's Southern-born manager did his utmost to persuade Tom to replace it with Dixie, the theme song of the Confederacy, but Tom would not budge.  Instead he played Dixie alongside Yankee Doodle, "the two airs floating together in perfect time and tune", as one listener reported. While never a patriotic rouser, Tom's mash up was certainly an uncannily apt summation of the divided nation.

Ragtime pianists at the turn of the century continued to follow Blind Tom's lead. 

According to legend, Scott Joplin played Yankee Doodle in the North, and Dixie in the south and an interpolation of the two in the vicinity of the Mason/Dixon Line.

New York stride pianist James P Johnson also took up the challenge, assigning Dixie to the bass and Star Spangled Banner to the treble -- a piece he called his Imitator's Rag.

But just who was Johnson imitating? Was it the originator, Blind Tom?

After all, Blind Tom was the most famous popular pianists of his day. It's inconceivable that he toured the United States relentlessly for four decades, and did not inspire other pianists to flaunt their virtuosity too.

Even Chet Atkins got a kick out of showing what he could do with Yankee Doodle and Dixie on guitar.

James P Johnson's played the Imitator's Rag

James P Johnson's played the Imitator's Rag

Carrie Jacobs-Bond recalls Blind Tom in concert

"He impressed me as being quite the most wonderful man in the world", was how songwriter Carrie Jacobs-Bond recalled Blind Tom Wiggins.

 Carrie Jacob Bond was one of America's best-selling tunesmiths in the early decades of the 20th century; one of the few women composers on Tin Pan Alley.

Like Blind Tom, Carrie was something of a child prodigy. When Blind Tom visited her Wisconsin town in 1870, she was chosen for the audience challenge. Usually a member of the audience tested Tom's prodigious memory, daring him to reproduce a melody after a single hearing. On this day, Blind Tom would test the eight-year-old's memory.

This is her recollection of that day:

Rarely Seen photo

From the Montana Historical Society comes a rare picture of Blind Tom Wiggins taken in the 1890s.

The back of the photograph states that Blind Tom playing at Ming’s Opera House in Helena, Montana, August 24, 1894.

BlindTom_1890s

Blind Tom's "beloved" Flute

A flute once owned by Blind Tom is now in the collection of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. 

The engraved nameplate on the ebony and silver flute reads "Made For Blind Tom by Wm. R. Meinell, New York."

Blind Tom is mostly famous for his mastery of the piano, however he loved playing the flute and rarely traveled without one.

The biography, The Ballad of Blind Tom, recounts many instances of Tom playing the flute: in hotel rooms, gardens and woodlands, though rarely on stage.  Here are some of our favorite stories:

As a young child in Columbus Georgia, Tom's ten year old sister would keep watch on him in the yard while their parents worked. But at the song of a bird, Tom would follow it, loping off into the thickly wooded forests that surrounded much of the farm. His parent's frantic hollers for the missing child raised such alarm that his master's eldest son joined the search, combing the forest with his flute. Eventually the sweet sounds of the instrument lured Tom home.

When Tom was about eight, some friends of his master's family played a duet on piano and flute. At the first sound of the music, Tom came rushing into the parlor and "fell down upon the floor, rolled over, turned somersaults, clapped his hands and groaned and went through diverse motions as if really in pain from the pleasure the music gave him."

In 1866, Blind Tom toured Europe. In Paris, one "musical celebrity of the old world’ was so impressed by Blind Tom's performance, he presented him with “a very handsome silver mounted crystal flute,” a gift that was to become Tom’s most prized possession.

Tom would improvise on the flute long into evening. The wild weird strains from his crystal flute murdered sleep in the most shameless manner” wrote a Washington lady of one frenzied midnight marathon. “Indescribable strains . . .notes rising into a shriek of agony . . . then melting away into a wail as soft and full of sorrow as that of Orpheus for his lost Eurydice.”

One night during his long tour season Tom played his beloved twenty-two keyed flute in his hotel room throughout the night. Eventually, a guest complained and his manager was sent in to silence him. But, as he entered the darkened room, Tom seized him, flung him out the door and refused to stop playing.

After a long legal battle, Blind Tom was reunited with his mother in 1887. A New York Times reporter was at the train station to witness his arrival: “Although he has been in the public eye since he was five-years-old, he is returning to his mother’s home with nothing but his wardrobe and a silver flute.

Could this be the silver flute now in the NMAAHC's collection?

The Invisibility of Black Autism

Clinical bias and ignorance have led generations of clearly autistic black children to be diagnosed with ADHD or even "mental retardation" instead writes Steve Silberman

05.17.2016 / By Steve Silberman

BlindTom_Train

One day in the 1860s, Mark Twain was crossing Illinois by rail on one of his epic lecture tours, when he sought some peace and quiet by retiring to the smoking car. He did not find it there. “A burly negro man on the opposite side of the car,” he later wrote, “began to sway his body violently forward and back, and mimic with his mouth the hiss and clatter of the train, in the most savagely excited way.”

For the next three hours, the huge man rocked, grimaced, and chattered excitedly to himself, all the while reproducing the sounds of the great hurtling machine carrying him and Twain across the great plains. The celebrated author of “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” — as prone to racist assumptions as most other white men of his day — was offended that the impossibly loud and apparently blind “barbarian” (“as ungainly in build and uncomely of countenance as any half-civilized plantation slave”) was not forcibly silenced by a conductor or wrestled to the floor and put in chains.

It came as a shock to Twain to learn that this powerfully built former slave — whose name was Thomas Wiggins, and stage name was “Blind Tom” — had been the first African-American musician in history to play a command performance at the White House, for President Buchanan. But several months after their serendipitous meeting on the train, Twain became one of Wiggins’ biggest fans, sitting raptly in an audience in San Francisco for three nights running as the man played his original compositions.

Unable to believe that this “dull clod” could possibly be capable of coming up with such beautiful and inventive melodies on his own, Twain attributed Wiggins’ prodigious gifts to “some archangel, cast out of upper Heaven like another Satan,” who inhabited the “coarse casket” of his body.

More than 30 years after both men died — Wiggins in 1908, Twain in 1910 — a growing field of psychological research would replace the idea of hovering archangels with clinical analysis and medical diagnosis. Wiggins’ eccentric behaviors and curious gifts (including perfect pitch) would come to be viewed as paradigmatic of a condition that Leo Kanner, a child psychiatrist at Johns Hopkins Hospital, christened early infantile autism.

Yet for most of the 20th century, people like Wiggins would remain invisible to the medical establishment — not just because they were autistic, but because they were autistic and black. Not one of the 11 children that Kanner described in his landmark 1943 paper — the one that put autism on the map of American psychiatry — was black, even though many of the patients seen at Johns Hopkins were low-income people of color.

Nine of Kanner’s original patients came from Anglo-Saxon stock and two were Jewish. Noting the preponderance of academics and professionals — including professors, lawyers, chemists, and psychiatrists — among his patients’ parents and relatives, Kanner became convinced that these children’s condition was related, in some way, to their will to achieve and their elevated socio-economic status. “All but three of the families,” he gushed, “are represented either in ‘Who’s Who in America’ or in ‘American Men of Science,’ or both.”

Kanner would go on to speculate that there was something sinister about these “highly intelligent” people — particularly those “strongly preoccupied with abstractions of a scientific, literary, or artistic nature” — that rendered their children prone to the disabling syndrome he became famous for describing. The problem, he concluded, was that “in the whole group, there are very few really warmhearted fathers and mothers… even some of the happiest marriages are rather cold and formal affairs.”

In a public talk quoted in Time magazine in 1948, Kanner went further than that, declaring that these children had been “kept neatly in a refrigerator which didn’t defrost” — the trope that engendered the noxious stereotype of the destructive “refrigerator mother,” whose idea of doing the right thing for her children was “the mechanized service of the kind which is rendered by an over-conscientious gasoline station attendant.”

As a result of Kanner’s theory that his syndrome disproportionately affected hyper-ambitious, upper-middle-class families, two generations of clinicians and researchers would view autism primarily as a condition of white children. With only a few exceptions, black children were virtually absent from the autism research literature for decades.

Thus in 1984, psychologist Victor Sanua, a pioneer in cross-cultural studies of mental conditions, could — and did — credibly insist that autism is “rarely found” in black and Hispanic families — or even in the populations of continents like Africa, South America or Asia. Instead of focusing on possibly confounding factors like lack of access to health care and diagnostic resources for people of color, Sanua proposed that autism was “an illness of Western civilization” that was related to “high technology,” rather than a “universal phenomenon.” (This kind of language would later be echoed by those determined to find the cause of autism in some toxic aspect of the modern world, such as vaccines, pesticides, or even Wi-Fi.) These theories became a self-fulfilling prophecy: Autistic children of color would often end up getting diagnosed with something else — typically, generic “mental retardation,” a conduct disorder, or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

It was in that context that Dorothy Groomer, the mother of a young African-American man named Steven, explained to the makers of the 2002 documentary Refrigerator Mothers that “a whole team of doctors” from the University of Illinois refused to diagnose her son with autism, though he displayed all of the classic signs. “They said, ‘No — it may be an emotional disturbance, but it was not autism.’ We did not fit the classic mold for autism, which is white, upper middle class, and very, very bright.”

The implications of this cultural bias continue to resonate — and to cause real problems – in the modern era. A report published in 2010 by researchers at the Washington University School of Medicine found that African-American children and their relatives are profoundly underrepresented in genetic databases employed for autism research. The influential Autism Genetic Resource Exchange, for example, identified only 2.3 percent of its subjects as African-American, despite the fact that African-Americans account for roughly 13 percent of the population in the United States. The data housed by the Autism Genome Project Consortium is similarly weighted toward families of European descent.

This has led some researchers to speculate that there’s some mysterious “protective factor” at work in black or Hispanic genes. But a close examination of the recruitment process for genetic research reveals many different factors in play that tend to favor white subjects, such as the exclusion of children raised by single parents.

Black families also report that their children get much less attention from pediatricians than white children, leading to further misdiagnosis and under-diagnosis, and that they are less likely to be referred. In 2002, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that children of color may be diagnosed with autism up to two years later than their white counterparts. A similar study some years later found that physicians were far more likely to diagnosis clearly autistic black children with other disorders, notably ADHD. Mental illness and learning disabilities also carry heavy burdens of stigma in the black community, leading to parental reluctance to seek a diagnosis for a child in the first place.

There are signs, at least, that the issue is starting to get some serious attention, primarily due to the efforts of autistic self-advocates and their families. There are communities, as represented by the website, The Color of Autism that seek to highlight both the gap and the needs. This spring, a powerful anthology on autism and race called All the Weight of Our Dreams, edited by Lydia X. Z. Brown, E. Ashkenazy, and Morénike Giwa Onaiwu, will be published by the Autism Women’s Network. And the mainstream media is starting to raise the issue. Earlier this year, National Public Radio made a point of discussing the challenges for African-Americans diagnosed with autism as part of an investigation into the condition.

But a century and a half after Mark Twain wrote his unflattering description of a man whose extraordinary talents he would come to admire, society continues to overlook the distinctive hurdles faced by autistic people of color and their families in gaining access to health care, education, housing, and employment.

A couple of months ago, I was flying to a conference on disability at the National Academies of Sciences in Washington, when my seatmate — a young black woman who works in public policy — asked me what I do for a living. I told her that I had recently published a book called “NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity.”

“Autism, huh,” she replied, giving me a sly side-eye. “Isn’t that a white-people thing?”

Steve Silberman is an award-winning science writer whose articles have appeared in Wired, The New Yorker, the MIT Technology Review, Nature, Salon, and many other publications. He is the author of the 2015 book “NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity.”

Alain Locke, Harlem Renaissance Scholar, on Blind Tom

Alain Locke wrote about Blind Tom Wiggins in his 1936 book, The Negro and His Music.

His recognized that Blind Tom deserved a place in the black musical canon -- in contrast to a number of early black music historians who simply ignored him.

For instance, Will Marion Cook was one of the first people to categorize black music into distinct phases -- the minstrel era, the musical comedy era, ragtime, jazz. However in his many newspaper articles for the black press, Cook made no reference to Blind Tom, despite the pianist's considerable national fame.

Nor does Blind Tom appear in Tom Fletcher's, 100 years of the Negro In Show Business. Like many, Cook and Fletcher struggled to reconcile Tom's eccentric behavior with ideas of "race progress".

Granted, Blind Tom was not part of close-knit world of black show business. His white managers kept him isolated; he performed one man shows, seldom appearing alongside other entertainers, either black or white. Nevertheless he was a household name, one of the country's best known pianist in the decades after the Civil War.

Alain Locke was in no doubt to Blind Tom's place in the black musical lineage, describing him as a musician operating on an "art level, at a time when even folk music had not yet broken through to recognition".

AlanLocke_BlindTom
BlindTom_AlanLocke

A Ballad from Bernie Taupin and Elton John

After reading Deirdre O'Connell's The Ballad of Blind Tom, Bernie Taupin, lyricist for Elton John, was inspired to pay tribute to Blind Tom in song.

In September 2013, Bernie Taupin told Rolling Stone Magazine:

"My material has always been story driven. I like to think that I'm a relatively cinematic writer. Obviously, I collect ideas as I travel down life's highway. For example, something like the "The Ballad of Blind Tom". I read the book The Ballad of Blind Tom, and being a voracious reader I get so many ideas from reading. When I read that book, I thought to myself, "If this isn't a song, nothing is." It appealed to my method of writing. I had to literally make the Readers Digest version of the book, condense it into a song. I think it worked."

The Ballad of Blind Tom appears on Elton John's2013 album, The Diving Board, produced by T. Bone Burnett.

Blind Tom Goes Digital

In February 2015, the Columbus Museum in Georgia acquired Judge George Green's collection.

Many items from this collection are now available for viewing online. From handbills, to posters to newspapers clippings, the records are a rich source of primary historical material about the remarkable Blind Tom. We love it!

Here are some of our favorite pictures, many of them digitized by the Columbus Museum for the first time.

Dizzy Gillespie on Blind Tom

Dizzy Gillespie took time out from his tour of Georgia, to play When the Saints Go Marching at Blind Tom's memorial marker in Colombus, Georgia in May 1979.

In his memoir, To Be, Or Not To Bop, Gillespie wrote:

Blind Tom "traveled all over the world doing concerts and got write ups from all of the papers and played for kings and queens, and all of this, telling how great Blind Tom was, that there was nobody -- he had no peers. There seems to be a little conspiracy; they don't want blacks to have the credit".

DizzyGillespie_BlindTomGrave
DizzyGillespie_BlindTom

Blind Tom Goes To Washington

In May 1860, Blind Tom and his manager Perry Oliver traveled to the nation's capital and took up lodgings in the Willard Hotel, a marbled pillared jewel on the corner on 14th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue.

The hotel was the unofficial center of Washington life: an elegant mess of power brokers, dilettantes, low level bureaucrats and hangers-on.

In a small private concert hall adjoining the hotel, Blind Tom made his Washington debut. Before a hundred curious onlookers, Perry Oliver explained, in his high-falutin’ style, how "music broke out on Tom like the small pox". The eleven-year-old enslaved prodigy did not disappoint. His perplexing feats of music and memory confounded all gathered.

A young reporter named Henry Watterson recalled the encounter almost a half century later.

‘His crude, often grotesque, attempts to imitate whatever fell upon his ear, either vocally, or on the key-board, were startling’, noted Watterson. ‘Blind, deformed and black - as black even as Erebus - idiocy, the idiocy of a mysterious, perpetual frenzy, the sole companion of his waking visions and his dreams’. 

At the time, "idiocy" was a commonly used medical term that described a broad range of irrational behavior. Like many, Watterson wrongly assumed that Tom's peculiarities were somehow linked to his race. However politically incorrect this description might read today, it captures the Watterson's fascination with the musical prodigy.

Here was a blind child who could conjure up the sybaritic presence of Georgia's Senator Toombs, draw the song of the thrush from the piano then lapse into endless rounds of one-footed leaps and spins.

This was bigger than the pantomime witnessed daily on Capitol Hill, more arresting than a magician’s sleight-of-hand or a virtuoso’s masterful touch.

Utterly intrigued, Henry Watterson joined Blind Tom's tour party and, over the following months, chose the company of an so-called "idiot" over the most influential minds of his time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

PODCAST: Blind Tom, Slave Piano Sensation

audio Block
Double-click here to upload or link to a .mp3. Learn more.

 Blind Tom: Slave Piano Prodigy was produced by Into The Music, ABC Radio National

A transcript of the full radio program can be found at here. The voices you hear in the video are of Deirdre O'Connell, author of The Ballad Of Blind Tom, concert pianist John Davis and artist Martin Sharp.

BlindTom_ColombusMuseum

Woven Words: Blind Tom in verse

“Blind Tom” by Jessica Lynne Brown. An illustration from Olio

Tyehimba Jess's new collection of poems presents the sweat and story behind America’s blues, worksongs and church hymns.

Part fact, part fiction, Olio weaves sonnet, song, and narrative to examine the lives of mostly unrecorded African American performers including Blind Tom Wiggins.

 

General James Bethune and John Bethune Introduce Blind Tom
by Tyehimba Jess from Olio

Tyehimba Jess poem

Olio is available through Wave Books
“Blind Tom” by Jessica Lynne Brown is an illustration from Olio
Courtesy of Oxford American Magazine

 

"Specimens" and "Peculiar Idiosyncrasies"

The songs of Blind Tom Wiggins provide a rare glimpse into the interior landscape of a composer who left no written testimony beyond his published musical scores writes Stephanie Jensen-Moulton in American Music Review

When Thomas "Blind Tom" Wiggins was born on 25 May 1849, his mother and father were worse than enslaved—they were a family of slaves with a blind newborn who were about to be sold off individually. For reasons that remain opaque, General John G. Bethune, a local land-owner and journalist, purchased the entire Wiggins family when they stepped onto the auction block in Columbus, Georgia in 1850.1 Many disabled infants born into slavery were killed by their masters with as little thought as a practical farmer might give to drowning a runt or shooting a horse with a shattered leg.2 But Charity Wiggins' blind infant son was protected by his parents and tolerated by his master long enough to survive into childhood, when he would prove himself to be a most valuable addition to General Bethune's "material investments" and, indeed, to the Bethune family income. Although Wiggins' blindness was apparent from birth, his intellectual and cognitive differences did not manifest until early childhood; yet these differences defi ned his future life much more than did his physical disability.

Wiggins was known primarily as a child prodigy, and later, as a composer and performer of virtuosic pieces for the piano. Although doctors and psychologists believe him to have been an autistic savant, any attempt at a concrete posthumous diagnosis presents significant problems for the fact-seeking historian.3 However, evidence from his concert reviews and other press coverage—as well as aspects of his piano music—suggests that Wiggins presented autistic spectrum mannerisms and behaviors in both public and private situations.4

The songs of Wiggins provide a glimpse into the interior landscape of a composer who left no written testimony beyond his published musical scores. Through Wiggins' songs, we discover something quite rare: a slave narrative from the perspective of a physically and cognitively disabled person. Wiggins' vocal music, as opposed to his piano music, documents his experience via verbal means. His recently discovered songs reveal not only his perception of everyday events, but also the ways in which Wiggins' public persona was manipulated by his guardians, teachers, and managers in order to align with contemporary ideas about race and disability.

Four extant songs, almost certainly composed by Wiggins himself, reflect in musical style the popular song idiom of the late nineteenth century in the U.S. They are strophic, sometimes using a chorus or refrain, and do not present any particular harmonic challenges to the ear, other than the occasional secondary dominant chord. The songs are unique, however, because of the texts themselves, and the unusual relationship between the music and the text.

Analysis of Wiggins' piano music suggests autism through the awkwardness of transitional moments, non-verbal narratives of historical events, and works that imitate certain sounds found in both nature and machinery. Wiggins' songs, however, suggest autism primarily through text-music relationships and subject matter.5 The disruption of the verbal narrative in the pieces, which indicates a different mode of perceiving events in time, is also represented within the music that underlays that text. These compositional details, along with those that appear in Wiggins' piano music, align directly with diagnostic indicators of autism.6 From the titles alone—we need not look further than "The Man Who Got the Cinder in His Eye" and "The Boy with the Axles in His Hands"— one can surmise that the author of the text boldly composes with cognitive differences, and a voice rarely found among writers of nineteenth-century parlor song tradition.

The publication of Wiggins' own compositions was manipulated by Bethune in order to incite the most interest in Wiggins and his capacity to write music and text in spite of his disabilities. For example, the songs published in 1867, when Wiggins was seventeen, have been grouped together under the decidedly medicalized title Specimens of Blind Tom's Vocal Compositions. The songs are preceded by the following note to the reader: "Beautiful music, words without sense. These are the true results of the mind of this extraordinary being, and as such will be regarded with interest."7 Before the interested musician even begins to read through the compositions, Wiggins' cognitive difference has been illuminated, coloring the entire experience of performing or reading through these works.

The texts themselves are consistently inconsistent, particularly in terms of tense and subject position. An example that perfectly illustrates this constant shift in positionality and temporality is the first line of "The Man Who Got the Cinder in His Eye": "I must confess almost of you, / And take ourselves to thee. / And then I want to be awhile, / And then he stays down there." It's immediately unclear to the listener where the subject is, where he is going, and when the action takes place. This sense of perceiving the passage of time and the position of self differently is then reflected in the way the music underlays the text. While the text would suggest extreme irregularity, the rhythm proceeds with incessant, echolalic pairs of dotted quarter and eighth notes in a melodic parallel period anchored in D major (as seen in Figure 1).8\

This rhythmic pattern continues throughout the piece without rupture, with a piano accompaniment that does not venture into any subdivisions of the steady quarter note pulse. Harmonically, the piece begins and ends with second inversion triads of the tonic, with its most unusual moment being the outlandish secondary dominant seventh placed at the exact mid-point of the song, in measure 11.

The second and third songs in this set of Specimens also feature simple accompaniments and harmonies, drawing upon basic chordal textures and harmonic structures. "The Boy with the Axles in His Hands" features a rollicking chorus with a text that highlights the sometimes obsessive behavior of its writer.9 He notes that he "wouldn't go to sleep and wouldn't stay away from the boy with the axles in his hands," indicating a compulsion to see an event, which might be commonplace for the neuro-typical individuals surrounding him. Unlike the other text in the song, the title text occurs not just once, but four times in the course of the piece, underlining its extreme importance to the author. The final song, "The Man Who Snatched the Cornet out of His Hands," also brings Wiggins' unique experience of the world to bear on text-writing. As Deirdre O'Connell notes, through this text "we can begin to fathom the mysterious gap between what made sense to Tom and what makes sense to the rest of us."10 Although O'Connell suggests, perhaps too lightly, that "the rest of us" all perceive things the same way, her statement highlights the fact that this particular song text represents a rare example of Wiggins' capacity to engage with the world on a unique verbal plane. Above a gentle, chordal texture, Wiggins writes: "Tell him to come up / I'll do your Topley / Don't be uneasy / Until I see you. / Now he had gone up / Into his Mason / Now you had hurt your / Topley last night."11 As with the previous texts, the sense of rhythmic regularity in the music, as seen in Figure 2, underlays the time-shifting text in a dizzying combination of altered subject position and unclear temporal location that, to modern eyes and ears, brings to mind James Joyce rather than Stephen Foster.

Another collection of Wiggins' vocal compositions, published in 1881, begins with the sentimental song "Wilt Thou Bring My Baby Home." This piece has a much more interesting and complex piano accompaniment than the songs from the 1867 set, and features broken chords, changing textures, syncopation, and even a shift from common time to twelve-eight meter in the fi nal verse. While the harmonies remain relatively simple, this was typical of American parlour songs in the late–nineteenth century. Wiggins does use a chromatic decorative passage, however, between verses one and two, as shown in Figure 3, signaling his increasing familiarity with the works of Chopin and Liszt. Yet again, Bethune provides a caveat for the musician: "The thoughts expressed in these Songs were suggested to the author by actual occurrences. The quaint form of the ‘Poems' furnishes a striking illustration of one of Wiggins's peculiar idiosyncrasies."12 Given that the other songs in this collection sport titles such as "The Man Who Mashed His Hand" and "The Man Who Sprained His Knee," it is possible that the idiosyncrasy to which Bethune refers is Wiggins' extreme interest in human error and injury that was evidenced in the earlier song "The Man Who Got the Cinder in His Eye."13

Wiggins' signature poetic style is most evident in the second verse of "Wilt Thou bring My Baby Home," when he writes: "Now the roses are in bloom, / And in the garden safe, / You may bring the can along / And there it will be safe. / Go and ask my mother if she's ready, / To go and take a walk with me. / Tell me what time will you all be back. / We will be back at six o'clock."14 This text bears most clearly the hallmarks of autism spectrum behaviors, with the author's concern for the safekeeping of an inanimate object, deep concern about the passage of time, and verbal repetition of "safe" and "be back." The words and music do not fit together as well as in Wiggins' earlier set of songs, partially because of the more complex musical elements and metric shifts. The piece functions as though the piano accompaniment were improvised first, and then in an episode of autistic hearing—think Glenn Gould at the piano—Wiggins began to hum, and then sing words over the text, regardless of word accent placement or other niceties of textmusic relationships.15 While the refrain seems to elide text and music in a normative way, the verses are awkwardly set, as in the strange word accent placed on "be" of "be back" on the downbeat of measure 23, followed soon after by a repetition of the word "back" with an ornamented vocal turn. This is but one of many examples of unusual text settings in the piece; one might surmise that, through his use of text in these songs, Wiggins was not composing entirely in his first language, that of sound.16

While Wiggins' performances were undeniably mediated by his managers, the composerly voice that emerges in these published songs as evidence of those performances defies the notion that cognitively disabled individuals do not exist as authors of American historical narratives. This group of vocal works by Wiggins sheds light on the unique narrative of a continuously enslaved, multi-disabled composer, contributing to the developing rubric of an autistic compositional style.

-Stephanie Jensen-Moulton
Brooklyn College, 2011

Notes

  • 1 Deirdre O'Connell, The Ballad of Blind Tom, Slave Pianist: America's Lost Musical Genius (New York: Overlook Duckworth, 2009), 23.
  • 2 Ibid., 17. O'Connell also notes that some disabled children of slaves survived only because their owners believed they could be sold to freak shows at a profit, as in the 1852 case of conjoined twins sold for $10,000 in North Carolina.
  • 3 Oliver Sacks, An Anthropologist on Mars: Seven Paradoxical Tales (New York: Vintage, 1995), 188–90. See also http://www.johndavispianist.com/blindtom.html, as well ashttp://www.neurodiversity.com/bio_blind_tom_wiggins.html.
  • 4 For information on autism in Wiggins' piano music and issues of authorship, see Stephanie Jensen-Moulton, "Finding Autism in the Compositions of a 19th-Century Prodigy: Reconsidering ‘Blind Tom' Wiggins" inSounding Off: Theorizing Disability in Music, Neil Lerner and Joseph N. Straus, eds. (New York: Routledge, 2006), 199–216; also, Joseph N. Straus, Extraordinary Measures: Disability in Music (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 133. It is also important to note that the term "autism" did not come into parlance until the 1950s, after Wiggins' death.
  • 5 See the discussion of non-verbal narrative in Wiggins' piano composition "Battle of Manassas" in Jensen-Moulton, "Finding Autism," 205.
  • 6 Tony Atwood, Asperger's Syndrome: A Guide for Parents and Professionals, (London: Kingsley Publishers, 1998), 20–22. Although this book focuses on Asperger's Syndrome, the pages indicated list autism spectrum (ASD) diagnostic indicators.
  • 7 Thomas Greene Wiggins, Specimens of Blind Tom's Vocal Compositions (Columbus, Ga.: John G. Bethune, 1867), 1.
  • 8 Echolalia is a persistent indicator of autism spectrum disorders, defi ned as the repetition of a particular word or phrase until it ceases to make sense within its original context. Nancy D. Wiseman, Autism Spectrum Disorders: An Essential Guide for the Newly Diagnosed Child (Cambridge, Mass.: Da Capo Press, 2009), 306.
  • 9 Leonard Davis, Obsession: A History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008), 61.
  • 10 O'Connell, The Ballad of Blind Tom, 98.
  • 11 Wiggins, Specimens, 4.
  • 12 Thomas Greene Wiggins, Vocal Compositions, Words and Music by Blind Tom (Columbus, Ga.: John G. Bethune, 1881), cover.
  • 13 Chantal Sicile-Kira and Temple Grandin, Adolescents on the Autism Spectrum (New York: Penguin, 2006), 9.
  • 14 Wiggins, Vocal Compositions, 4.
  • 15 Straus discusses the verbal component of "autistic hearing" as a mode of aural perception that may include the involuntary making of sounds on the part of the listener, adding to the general soundscape inExtraordinary Measures, 160.
  • 16 Before he acquired speech, Wiggins could imitate with great precision the sounds of birds, machines, and other non-linguistic aural indicators. O'Connell, The Ballad of Blind Tom, 47–49.

Blind Tom and his drunken manager

Blind Tom relentlessly toured the United State and Canada between 1860 to 1890, making a fortunes for his guardians and managers.  A review in the Wichita Eagle from May 1878 offers a rare insight into a concert where many things didn't go to plan, beginning with Tom's whiskey- sozzled manager, who kept the audience waiting for over an hour. When he finally stumbled onto stage,  he was "so drunk as to render the his attempted explanation mere incoherent mutterings".

The article also highlights Tom's enormous popularity with black audiences. 333 tickets were sold in the white only stalls while and another 300 black people jammed into to the balcony and gallery. A "wonderful prodigy" and star trouper, Tom performance was "simply marvelous".

"With one single faculty of the mind so highly perfected and splendidly attuned, to what heights may not the perfected and ever-living soul of eternity attain" summed up the reviewer

 
 

The Last Slave: "Blind Tom Wiggins" remarkable tale

Writes Michael Taube for the New York Post

Black History Month, as the late president Gerald Ford eloquently said in 1976, encourages Americans every February to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”

Prominent black Americans like Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver often figure prominently in this discussion, whereas pathbreaking but lesser-known figures mostly get overlooked.

Like Thomas “Blind Tom” Wiggins.

Blind Tom may well have been one of America’s greatest musical prodigies, yet remains far too obscure in American culture and history.

Born a slave in Harris County, Ga., in May 1849, Blind Tom was unable to work the plantation owned by Gen. James Neil Bethune. He was therefore allowed to wander around freely and discover the world in a way that other black Americans of the time couldn’t have even dreamed of.

As the story goes, he was intrigued by the piano after listening to Bethune’s daughters play it. He was able to memorize pieces in a flash and, by the age of 5, wrote his first composition, “The Rain Storm.”

Bethune immediately recognized the young boy’s talent. He was moved into the family home in an adjoining room with a piano, and reportedly played for many hours each day.

As Blind Tom got older, he was loaned out to concert promoter Perry Oliver and toured the country. He was an immediate sensation, earning more than $100,000 per year and was often compared to great composers like Ludwig van Beethoven and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

He astonished audiences, and could apparently play several songs at once. He had memorized somewhere in the neighborhood of 7,000 pieces of music. His magnificent 1861 composition, “The Battle of Manassas,” beautifully fits in with other great music from the Civil War era.

His admirers included then-president James Buchanan (he was the first black American to perform at the White House) and Mark Twain.

On the surface, it sounds rather idyllic. Alas, Blind Tom’s life was anything but.

Blind Tom had several strikes against him: his race, blindness and the fact that he was, most likely, an autistic savant. For all of his natural ability in music, the author Willa Cather once described him as little more than a “human phonograph, a sort of animated memory, with sound producing power.”

He was unable to take care of himself, couldn’t communicate his own wants and needs and often spoke in the third person. Some have even suggested he wasn’t aware of the fact that he was an African American.

Moreover, Blind Tom has been called the last legal slave in America, and there may be some truth to this. He went through a series of custody battles within the Bethune family, and bounced from city to city. He served as little more than a sideshow attraction to an adoring audience, and died a pauper in June 1908.

Hence, he was never really a free man.

There’s another sad part to this tale. No original recordings of Blind Tom appear to exist. His sheet music is available, but only a small number of musicians have ever recorded his original songs. The most well-known album, “John Davis Plays Blind Tom,” was brought out in 2000. The irony? Davis, a talented musician and historian, is white.

Blind Tom’s life was a living hell — there’s no denying this. At the same time, the musical legacy that this incredible (albeit troubled) pianist born into slavery left behind is worthy of greater discussion and, in turn, national recognition.

Indeed, Blind Tom is precisely the figure we should be celebrating during Black History Month (or anytime, of course). Blind Tom Wiggins’ difficult journey and neglected accomplishments mask a classic American tale of genius, talent, determination and inspiration.

Michael Taube, a columnist and political commentator, was a speechwriter for former Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

 

Celebrating Blind Tom in Black History Month

In 1865, the New York phrenologist Orson Fowler examined the sixteen-year-old piano prodigy known as "Blind Tom". This is what he reported:

We have seen Tom - who is only partially blind - several times in public and in private; have examined him carefully, and made extended caliper measurements. The result of our investigation leads us to the following conclusions:

Tom was said to be 16 years of age in May 1865. He stands 5 feet 7 inches high, weighs nearly 50 pounds and is one of the most compactly built, vigorous and healthy persons we have ever met.

In his musical performances he exercises his arms and shoulders vigorously and he has the admirable instinct, as soon as he is released from public exhibition to commence a system of bodily gyrations in his private room, solely devoted to the exercise of the lower part of his body and limbs.

One very singular exercise of his consists in standing on one foot, bending his body forward horizontally, and straightening the other leg out backward so that the foot is in line with his head. In this position he leaps around the room perhaps 20 times or more. His leaps are from half-a-yard to a yard-and-a-half in extent, and it almost makes one giddy to see him make these circuits, and at the same time apprehensive, lest his foot slip and he dash his head on the floor. In making these circuits he will go within six inches of the wall, but never hit it.

He has various other methods of exercising his legs and hips which must be seen to be appreciated. His motions in these gymnastics, though in some respects unique, are not ungraceful. By persistent exercise he has so developed his physique that it will be hard to find a person of his age with a finer frame. His legs are splendidly developed and as hard as those of any gymnast. He has broad square shoulders, a full chest, a well-knit frame throughout and is as sound and healthy as a human can be. We are, in fact, informed by those who attend him that such is the case.