I went to hear Blind Tom Last Night...

Emilie Davis was an African-American woman living in Philadelphia during the U.S. Civil War.  In three pocket diaries for the years 1863, 1864, and 1865, Emilie recounts attending a Blind Tom concert in September 1865. The performance pleased her although was infuriated by the segregated seating arrangements.

It was Blind Tom's first appearance in the city and his first tour outside the south. Such was Philadelphia’s ‘wild enthusiasm’ for Tom, that a one week engagement stretched to four.

‘He was led in by a showman- a good-natured, lazy man, with one of his waist-buttons gone - , placed in the middle of the platform and left to himself,’ noted one audience member. Tom made a bow, then in a high pitch, monotonous voice began to recite a speech and speak of himself in the third person, ‘as if he were the showman, and the real showman, leaning against the piano, and looking on, was Tom.’

He spoke of ‘this boy Tom as a mere creature of music’, who was ‘ignorant of the Almighty's reason for choosing the piano as the instrument which he was to play’, and wondered why ‘a being of the lowest scale of humanity should have so much genius”. He warned that the musical marvel was liable to take twists and turns that not even he could predict, ‘such is the capricious, impulsive and entirely unregulated nature of Tom's mind.’

The introduction over, he dropped the showmann’s persona, resumed his ‘strange, eager, restlessness manner’, sat down at the piano and played an air from the opera Lucrezia Borgia.

Part high-minded piano recital, part Barnum-styled curiosity show, the American stage had never seen anything like Blind Tom. 

During his weeks in the city, seventeen Philadelphia music professors subjected Tom to numerous tests – had him identify up to twenty notes struck randomly and simultaneously; repeat after a single hearing, any piece either written or impromptu; and perform difficult compositions by Thalberg, Gottschalk and Verdi – and concluded he was ‘among the most wonderful phenomena recorded in musical history.’

Emilie Davis' diaries are part of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania’s (HSP) collections.