MAKING WHITE HOUSE HISTORY
Once upon a time, during an historic election campaign when the now- hallowed Abraham Lincoln was a still presidential nominee, there lived in Georgia a blind, autistic, slave boy with a flawless memory. Folks came far and wide to marvel how he never forgot a thing. At the ripe old age of eleven, he made White House history. Yet today, who even remembers him?
‘Blind Tom’ was born Thomas Greene, died Thomas Wiggins and for much of the time in between was known as Thomas Bethune, his changing surname a measure not of his genealogy but slave status. By the time he arrived in Washington in the summer of 1860, he had been sold on the auction block by a master unwilling to shoulder a ‘useless burden’; groomed for the stage by another master who saw in him the stirrings of a musical prodigy; and licensed out to a Barnum-style showman who touted him as “The Wonder of the World. The Marvel of the Age.”
And indeed, Blind Tom’s powers were inexplicably fantastic. He had a flawless memory, an all-consuming passion for sound and a mind-boggling ability to replicate any sound he heard. Thunderstorms were a particular favorite, as were banjos, fiddles, political speeches and trains. Those lucky enough to attend the private viewing at the Willard Hotel had never seen anything like him.
Tales of Blind Tom’s exploits electrified the nation’s capital. Determined to see if the marvelous claims were true, a bevy of the Southern politicians’ wives arranged a soiree at the home of a Washington doyenne. The slave prodigy not disappoint, playing secondo on a four-handed Rossini arrangement he had never heard before.
A musically-minded guest by the name of Harriet Lane was so impressed that a repeat performance was arranged at her place of residence. The niece and ward of James Buchanan, America’s only bachelor president, Miss Lane by default was America's First Lady. During her time in the executive mansion, she had staged some star-studded music receptions, although the historical significance of her next guest most likely eluded her: Blind Tom was the first African-American performer to officially grace the White House.
The only surviving account of Tom’s historic performance comes courtesy of Alabama socialite, Virginia Clay who was, at first, repelled by the “horrible grimaces” on Blind Tom’s face. But repugnance gave way to disbelief when the slave child bellowed to the young lady alongside him, ‘You cheat me! You cheat me!’ During their duet, it transpired, the girl had skipped a page of sheet music to test him.
Mrs Clay was thunderstruck. No slave addressed the “master race” with such bare-faced impertinence - nor did they get away with it. But remarkably Tom did. He was forever pushing belles off piano stools or commanding them to ‘hash’ with impunity. He was even known to pummel a music teacher for asking too many questions. In the racially oppressive South, this made him an unlikely hero amongst the other slaves - a lone figure who had no fear of white authority and spoke without censure.
In fact, Tom was as oblivious to the slave’s admiration as he was to Mrs Clay’s ire (and his manager’s many deceptions). The world he perceived was alive with vibration. His ear was so sensitive he could ‘see’ objects around him. Yet he knew nothing of concepts like “slavery” and “secession”.
"Sure, Blind Tom understood some people were black and others white, but this meant no more to him than the different colored keys on the piano", says Deirdre O'Connell, author of The Ballad of Blind Tom. "Music was the only thing that mattered and this he heard in the roll of the thunder, patter of the rain, roar of the crowd, twitter of gossip and belch of the big-mouthed guns."
Throughout Abraham Lincoln’s presidency and for many decades after, Blind Tom toured the nation, all the while soaking up the turbulent world around him – battles, machines, thunderstorms and days of Jubilee - and reflecting it back in sound, each memory undiluted by time.