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.