"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.