Slave Pianist, America's Lost Musical Genius


Cover of Ballad of Blind Tom


Tom's is a story with bottomless complexity,

touching on race and sanity and slavery and art.

But ultimately his life makes us think about

what it means to be human.



An exciting narrative full of powerful visual imagery... An irresistible read.

A vivid, carefully researched narrative.


A dizzying, mytho-magic aria, inflected by field hollers, the natural world,
and poetry—and riveting political bluster.

When I read the book The Ballad of Blind Tom, I thought to myself, "If this isn't a song, nothing is." It appealed to my method of writing.


Wonderful...Goes a long was towards putting Wiggins career in proper perspective.

The Ballad of Blind Tom is one of the 2010 Books All Georgians Should Read compiled by the Georgia Center of the Book.


Discover a slave pianist & autistic savant        

"I am astounded. I cannot account for it, no one can. No one understands it," a St Louis man uttered after watching Blind Tom perform inPicture of Deirdre O'Connell concert in 1866. Few other performers on the nineteenth century stage aroused as much curiosity as "Blind Tom" Wiggins. Born a slave in Georgia in 1848, by the time he died Hoboken in 1908, he was an international celebrity and his name was a byword for inexplicable genius.

Blind Tom possessed extraordinary musical gifts. He had an encyclopedic memory and could imitate, either vocally or musically, any soundhe heard. These extraordinary powers rocketed him to fame, hovering somewherebetween a respectedconcert pianist and glorified sideshow freak.

For the first time, author Deirdre O'Connell has pieced together the two world in Blind Tom's Wiggin's life: the brutally racist world he livedin and the symphony inside his head.

Deirdre O'Connell is an Australian biographer and documentarymaker.

Praise for The Ballad of Blind Tom

Both black history and music libraries will find compelling this true story of a black musical savant in slavery times.

The name Blind Tom means nothing today, but in Civil War-era America, he was one of the greatest music stars going. Sightless, African American, he was born into slavery and was probably autistic. He was afraid of strangers and clung to his guardians. He would slap those who laughed at him and shove women off the piano bench when their playing offended him.

Whooping and sputtering, he would twist his body into knots, standing on one foot and leaning forward, hopping around the room in fits of vigor broken up by somersaults and twirls. He ate with his hands, when he didn't put his face down into his food.

And he was called a genius by those who heard him play the piano. Blind Tom had freakish listening skills and an amazing talent for reproducing what he heard. He could play back complicated music he'd listened to but once; he could translate the external phenomena that transfixed him -- rainstorms, trains, sewing machines -- into impressionistic musical fantasies...

Such material is catnip for a theory-driven writer. Thankfully, Deirdre O'Connell isn't one. In The Ballad of Blind Tom, Slave Pianist she lays bare the ambiguities and leaves most of them at that. Few books ask as many questions, yet while too many questions can leave us begging for resolution, O'Connell mostly gets out of the way. She airs the unknowable stuff -- but then gets on to the next chapter of this all-but-forgotten mystery man's brilliant career. 

Tom's is a story with bottomless complexity, touching on race and sanity and slavery and art. But ultimately, his life makes us think about what it means to be human.

Mary Fitzgerald, THE GUARDIAN

It's a story full of contradictions and confusion. According to 19th-century white planter ideology, Tom was "sub-human"; according to African-American folklore, he was a "spirit child" blessed with the gift of "second sight"; according to more recent interpretations, he was an autistic savant. The greatest strength of this book is that it sides with none of these views. Instead, O'Connell embraces all "the holes, contradictions, outright lies and distortions and the tiny nuggets of truth" and reimagines the cacophony Tom might have heard in the turbulent world that surrounded him.


O’Connell’s vivid, carefully researched narrative reflects the tenor of the times, the culture of the Old South, the chaos of emancipation and Blind Tom’s single-minded devotion to his performances.


Full of wit and wild anecdote, The Ballad of Blind Tom has an astonishing cast of characters...It would be story of overpowering sadness had Blind Tom not been so full of life.

Deirdre O'Connell's meticulously researched and footnoted The Ballad of Blind Tom is a remarkable tale that poses any number of issues about the source of creativity vs. mere mimicry, the so-called "natural genius" of Blind Tom vs. the classical educated model of learning, as well as the exploitation of native talent that has apparently been part of show business from the very beginning. All of this is set against the heated backdrop of the Civil War, the ongoing battle between abolitionists and those pushing for emancipation, and the uneasy spectacle of a black slave making hundreds of thousands for his white master long after the last battle had been fought.

The improbable rise to fame and fascinating but tragic personal life of this largely forgotten American musician is the subject of The Ballad Of Blind Tom, Slave Pianist. O'Connell's skill as a filmmaker has served her well - she has created an exciting narrative text full of powerful visual imagery.

At times, however, it is also a disturbing and emotionally challenging read. Two aspects, in particular, may be unsettling to modern sensibilities. First, Ballad pulls no punches portraying the day-to-day evils of slavery - the ease with which entire families were split-up and a mother could be barred from contact with her son or the dangers faced by a disabled slave.

Second, whatever Tom's musical gifts, they clearly came at a price. Tom could be unpredictably aggressive, had great difficulties communicating with others or understanding their emotions (especially early in life), and suffered from many obsessive/compulsive behaviors. Modern writers have debated whether Tom was severely autistic or simply faced challenges with education and socialization resulting from growing up blind in a very different world. In either case, Tom clearly had considerable special needs. Far from being addressed in way that allowed him more meaningful interaction with society at large, his needs were ignored or even exacerbated to enhance his reputation as a "freak" or prodigy.

Blind Tom was not a blues or roots musician. Apart from his original compositions, his repertoire was firmly grounded in European and European-American musical traditions. Indeed, with his tight connections to a prominent antebellum southern family, Blind Tom was marginalized or even denigrated by the African American press and musical community until very late in his life. However, the story of this fascinating but largely forgotten figure in American music will appeal to many blues and roots fans.

The Ballad Of Blind Tom is a story without a happy ending. Even after the abolition of slavery, his relationship with the paternalistic Bethunes changed very little. As that family's fortunes fell, Tom passed through the hands of a series of less sympathetic and attentive "managers." Even in death, Blind Tom was long denied the respect that his talents as an artist and fundamental human dignity would merit. In spite of the unpleasant emotions Ballad sometimes raises, or perhaps in part because of them, it is an irresistible read.

It is also part of America's musical history that needs to be better remembered, as much for the inspiring accomplishments of this unique musician as for the unsavory truths about our collective history that we should not forget.



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