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.

Blind Tom's "soft and delicate" Hands

A long forgotten photo of Blind Tom has recently surfaced. Such a fine view of his hands!

His friend, Norbonne Robinson said of them: "Tom had a forearm and fist that would be respected by Jack Dempsey or Joe Louis, plus fingers soft and delicate as those of a baby girl."