WHO WAS BLIND TOM?
Born Into Slavery
Blind Tom was born into slavery in Columbus, Georgia in 1848. His master, Wiley Jones, was unwilling to bear the costs of maintaining a ‘worthless runt’ and wanted him dead. If not for vigilance of his mother, Tom would not have survived. When Tom was nine month old, his master put the blind infant, his two sisters and parents up for auction — not as a family but individually. The chances of anyone buying Tom was remote. His death was as good as certain.
Tom’s life was again spared, thanks to the tenacity of his mother, Charity. She approached a neighbor, General James Bethune, and begged him to save her family from the auction block. At first he refused, but on the day of the sale, Bethune showed turned up at the slave mart and purchased the family.
A few months after arriving at the Bethune Farm, Tom’s began to display unusual behavior. He would echo the sounds around him. If a rooster crowed, he made the same noise. He would attack his younger siblings just to hear them scream. If left alone in the cabin, he would drag chairs across the floor or bang pans and pots together – anything to make a noise.
By the age of four, Tom could repeat conversations ten minutes in length but could only express his own needs in whines and tugs. Unless constantly watched, he would escape: to the chicken coop, woods and finally to the piano in his master’s house. The sound of each note caused his young body to tremble in ecstasy.
No matter how many times the Bethunes removed him from the music room, Tom would return. Eventually General Bethune recognized the stirrings of a musical prodigy in the raggedy slave child. Eager to reap the financial rewards, Bethune installed Tom in the Big House and nurtured his musical gifts.
By the age of six, Tom was performing to sell out houses throughout Georgia. His managers promoted him as an ‘untutored’, ‘natural’ musician who could repeat any composition, no matter how difficult, after a single hearing.
The reality, of course, failed to match the showman’s spiel. Certainly Blind Tom had a flawless memory and extraordinarily ability to echo the sounds around him. But even at the high point of his career, he was unable to reproduce a complex concerto after a single hearing. (He needed an entire afternoon to accomplish that). But if the piece had a recognizable harmony – a polka, waltz, slave song or minstrel hit - Tom could just about play it as an eight-year-old and easily nail it as a sixteen-year-old.
At the age of eight, Tom was licensed out to a travelling showman named Perry Oliver who promoted him as a Barnum-styled freak— “a gorgon with angels wings”; part monster and part angel. By denigrating Tom’s human qualities, Oliver could exaggerate the astonishing transformation that took place when the child began to play the piano.
Before the audience’s very eyes, Tom would stop twitching and rocking. His blank open-mouthed expression would vanish. He would sweep his hands over the keys with the air of a master and draw the most beautiful, heartfelt music from the instrument. ‘I am astounded. I cannot account for it, no one can, no one understands it,’ wrote one baffled member of the public.
The mystery of Tom’s transformation has been solved as our understanding of autism has deepened. People on the autistic spectrum struggle to assimilate the sensory information bombarding them. Many engage in repetitive behavior to deflect the overload.
Music seems to have offered Tom one type of escape. Behind the piano, the sensory overload and fragmented perception – disappeared. The pleasure Tom experienced whilst playing music was evident to all. His outpourings of joy was a source of inspiration to many. As audiences struggled to reconcile his many aspects, they instinctively began to ponder what it means to be human and wonder at the mystery of life.
Cipher of the Times
Hard on the heels of Abraham Lincoln’s presidential nomination, Perry Oliver brought Blind Tom to Washington DC, sensing that something was about to erupt. But the issues that so obsessed his manager - slavery, abolition and secession - meant little to Tom. Yet ironically, the blind pianist would become a cipher of these troubled times. In June 1860, Tom visited the House of Congress and soaked up the political vitriol. Over the following weeks, he recited the orations on stage to audiences chortling with laughter.
Later in the election campaign, Tom was taken to hear the Democrat’s presidential candidate, Senator Stephen Douglas. For years afterwards, he performed the rally speech, perfectly captured the Douglas’s distinctive boom, his physical mannerisms and heckle and cheers of the crowd. “Startling” was how one of Douglas’s supporters described it.
Bind Tom’s legendary performances earned him an invitation to the White House where he played before President James Buchanan and a clique of Washington socialites. He was the first African-American musician to officially perform in the White House.
With the outbreak of war, Tom enlisted his heart to Confederate cause – or so claimed his manager who donated thousand of dollars to the Rebel war effort. In reality, Tom was no more aware of sectional politics that he was to the secretive games slaves played with their masters: the lip service they paid to their owner’s authority before slipping into the woods to pray for their deliverance. It was the crunch of marching feet, rat-a-tat-tat of the drum and fife and boom of musketry and cannon that absorbed Tom.
Tom channelled these sounds into his most famous composition, The Battle of Manassas, at the age of fourteen. The sum total of his perfect pitch, hypersensitive clarity, elastic vocal chords and total immersion in the world of sound enabled him to re-create a ‘harum-scarum’ battlefield like no other.
White southerners hailed The Battle of Manassas as a work of genius. Black audiences were less enthusiastic — an unsurprising response since Perry Oliver would introduce the piece as Tom’s spontaneous expression of loyalty to the Confederacy.
In reality, the wily showman used Tom as a propaganda tool to serve his own political agenda. Indeed, as the rebellion dragged on, Tom’s wild and discordant echo of battlefield became less a soul-stirring patriotic rouser and more a heart wrenching reminder of the tragedy of war.
The Wonder of the World
In the decades after the Civil War, Blind Tom toured the length and breadth of North America and Europe to great acclaim. He became a household name, celebrated by writers such as Mark Twain, Willa Cather and John Steinbeck. His concerts were a mix of virtuoso pieces and unashamedly popular novelties: imitations of trains, banjos and music boxes, playing one piece with his left hand, another with his right while singing a third, then repeating the feat with his back to piano.
At every concert, audience members put his musical memory to the test, challenging him to reproduce the composition they had just played. By the time he hit his full virtuosic stride, Tom was virtually unbeatable. As the crowds wildly applauded, he would bound across the stage in a series of spectacular one-footed leaps, howling along with them. The American stage had never seen anything like him.
Tom’s enormous fame was sullied by the deep-rooted racism of the period. Newspapers described him as an ‘idiot’ and likened him to an animal. Such descriptions reinforced racist ideas that Africans were closer to the animal kingdom than Europeans.
"But Blind Tom’s savant powers also made a nonsense of these race theories" says Deirdre O'Connell, author of The Ballad of Blind Tom. How could a man with such gifts be on ‘the lowest rung of humanity’ or ‘a mind dredged of all intelligence and purity’? A century and a half ago, there were few earthly explanations, although several unearthly ones were floating about.
Some saw Tom as a medium, an empty vessel, who channeled the genius of the great masters. Years earlier, in his hometown of Columbus, his fellow slaves had reached a similar conclusion: Tom was blessed with the gift of ‘second sight’, and could communicate with spirits from other worlds.
Tom was undoubtedly in communication with something. Many of his compositions were the fruit of a deep and profound dialogue with the natural and mechanical world. He would pass hours rapturously absorbed in a thunderstorm then sit down at the piano and play “something that the wind and rain said to me.”
Tom’s savant powers enabled him to revel in a sonic world alive with vibration. Powered by an almost superhuman capacity to concentrate on details most people would find inconsequential, he could tune into a fantastically intricate world of differentiated repetition: the crank of the butter churn, the drip-drip-drip of water down a drainpipe, the clicketty clack of a train or warble of a bird.
The bliss experienced by Tom as he drank in these sounds gave rise to the erroneous perception that he was perpetually happy. The reality was far more brutal. On tour, Tom’s managers kept him locked up alone in a hotel room. After years of social and physical isolation, he became morose and suspicious of people.
The Last American Slave
Tom had no concept of money and was exploited, deceived, manipulated and robbed blind by his white masters and guardians. Emancipation failed to deliver him from the shackles of slavery. His master’s son – John Bethune - assumed the role of guardian and manager. In 1872, Tom was adjudged insane and the vast sums of money he earned (the equivalent of $5 million dollars today) was squandered on Bethune’s extravagant lifestyle. Then in 1884, Bethune was killed in a railroad accident.
At the time of his death John Bethune was embroiled in a bitter divorce. When his estranged wife, Eliza Bethune, discovered she was cut out of the will, she tracked down Tom’s impoverished mother and persuaded her to mount a legal challenge in New York. It took three years of legal wrangling, but in 1887, victory was theirs and ‘The Last American Slave’ – as the press dubbed Tom – was set free.
But Tom’s so-called ‘emancipation’ was little more than a sham. Once Charity naively handed Tom’s guardianship over to the Bethune’s widow, she was unceremoniously dumped and sent back to Georgia, never to see her son again.
Blind Tom’s final years were shrouded in secrecy and paranoia. It was widely believed he died in The Johnstown Flood of 1889, America’s biggest man-made disaster to date. In fact, he was in one of three places: touring the backwaters of North America, holed up in a New York apartment on the lower east side or listening to the ocean’s roar at Eliza Bethune’s country hideaway in wilds of New Jersey (purchased at his expense). In 1903 he made a brief comeback on the vaudeville stage.
In 1908, at the age of sixty, Blind Tom died of a stroke and was buried in an unmarked paupers grave in Brooklyn’s Evergreen Cemetery. Twenty years later, the daughter of his former master, Fanny Bethune, began efforts to disinter his body into the Bethune family plot in Georgia. A Columbus resident insisted he carried out her request as best he could, Jim Crow laws forcing him to re-bury Tom at a nearby plantation. The Evergreen Cemetery, however, had documents to prove that the body was never removed. Today, two plaques – one in Columbus Georgia, the other in Brooklyn - mark his burial place: a fitting end to the enigma of Blind Tom.