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.