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.