Slave Pianist, America's Lost Musical Genius
THE LOS ANGELES TIMES
Tom's is a story with
touching on race and
sanity and slavery
and art. But ultimately
his life makes us think
about what it means
to be human.
LIVING BLUES MAGAZINE
An exciting narrative full of powerful visual imagery... An irresistible read
A vivid, carefully researched narrative
ROY TRAKIN, SONICBOOMERS.COM
Meticulously researched...a remarkable tale
JOHN DAVIS, PIANIST
Wonderful...Goes a long was towards putting Wiggins career in proper perspective.
The Ballad of Blind Tom is one of the Books All Georgian 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 in 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 sound he heard. These extraordinary powers rocketed him to fame, hovering somewhere between a respected concert 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 lived in and the symphony inside his head.
Deirdre O'Connell is an Australian writer and filmmaker, who has worked for the Jimi Hendrix Estate with Alan Douglas and Peter Neal plus underground artist, Martin Sharp and author Robert Lawlor. A number of her documentaries on environmental issues have been broadcast on the BBC. Most recently she has contributed an article to Perspectives Magazine.
Blind Tom on the airwaves
TERRANCE MCKNIGHT CELEBRATES JUNETEENTH
Terrance McKnight of WQXR, the classical music station of NYC, features the music of Blind Tom Wiggins, including Tom's seldom heard spiritual That Welcome Day, as he marks Juneteenth - June 19 - the day marking the abolition of slavery in the United States.
GPR'S COVER TO COVER
Deirdre O'Connell is Jeff Calder's guest on Georgia Public Radio's Cover to Cover.
INTO THE MUSIC
In December 2009, Australia's Radio National produced Slave Pianist Sensation, an hour long documentary on Blind Tom Wiggins, featuring interviews with Deirdre O'Connell, pianist John Davis, artist Martin Sharp and the Centre for the Mind's Professor Allan Synder. Follow this link to a fascinating insight into the world of Blind Tom.
WFMU NEW JERSEY, 91.1FM 90.1FM
Veteran music journalist, Irwin Chusid discusses The Ballad of Blind Tom with Deirdre O'Connell, December 2nd 2009.
THE BOOK SHOW
Radio National's The Book Show features The Ballad of Blind Tom.
Contemporary impressions of Blind Tom
Brooklyn artist Lorna Simpson's video installation CORRIDORS which features the music of Blind Tom
Blind Tom & America's Literary Greats
In January 1868, Mark Twain boarded a train from Galena to Chicago and for the first time, laid eyes on Blind Tom who was howling and whooping along to the hiss and rattle of the locomotive. Read Twain's wonderful account of his bizarre journey with Tom.
In Cather's best known novel My Antonia, she devotes six pages to a black pianist named Blind d'Arnault, who was almost certainly based on Blind Tom. Like Twain, Cather was intrigued by Blind Tom. Two decades earlier, when Blind Tom performed in Lincoln Nebraska , Cather reviewed the show for the Nebraska State Journal and marvelled that he was 'a human phonograph, a sort of animated memory with sound-producing power.'
Steinbeck delights in the misfits of this world and in Johnny Bear, one of his lesser known short story, he compares the elusive protagonist to Blind Tom.
Praise for The Ballad of Blind Tom
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.
A remarkable history of a forgotten 19th century pop culture hero...turns into a fascinating meditation on the nature of race, culture and creativity set against an America trying to heal after the Civil War.
[Although] Blind Tom was not a blues or roots musician...the story will appeal to many blues and roots fans. An exciting narrative text full of powerful visual imagery...It is an irresistible read.
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.
If you’re an avid reader of African American history or a student of early American entertainment, you’ll want this book.
It's a credit she manages to sugar-coat the pill of the horrid story of Tom's exploitation and brutalization enough to keep the reader on the page.
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...
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.
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.
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.
[The Ballad of] Blind Tom delivers all that such a book should... His story is one of music and celebrity, but at its core it is one of humanity.
Reading Blind Tom is a bit like looking at a spider under a microscope....larger-than-life and a bit alien.
Deirdre O'Connell writes dynamically enough to fittingly illustrate Wiggins' beautiful and tragic story
USA Today's pick The Ballad of Blind Tom for the best of Black History Month
The Ballad of Blind Tom is WAMC's book pick of the week.
Contact us: You can email us at blindtom.org