Saturday, February 14, 2009

The AFRO: 'How A Blind, Autistic Slave Boy Made White House History'

[The Ballad of Blind Tom, Slave Pianist: America's Lost Musical Genius; Deirdre O’Connell; Overlook Press (2009)]

On February 4, 2009 AfriClassical posted: “'The Ballad of Blind Tom, Slave Pianist: America's Lost Musical Genius' by Deirdre O'Connell”. Simone Cooper's review of the Book appeared in the AFRO Newspapers of Baltimore and Washington, D.C. It explains how the young slave pianist came to be invited to perform in the White House of President James Buchanan.
Book Review
By Simone Cooper 
Special to the AFRO
(February 12, 2009) - “When the much-hallowed Abraham Lincoln was a still presidential candidate, there lived in Georgia a blind, autistic slave boy with a flawless memory. Folks came far and wide to marvel at how he never forgot a thing. At the ripe old age of 11, he made White House history. Yet, today, as another milestone is marked, 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;' installed in the 'Big House' under the watchful eye of 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.'”

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 his face. But repugnance gave way to disbelief when Tom angrily drew back and bellowed to the young lady alongside him, 'You cheat me! You cheat me!' Apparently, during their duet, the girl had skipped a page of sheet music. 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.” [Full Post]  [Thomas “Blind Tom” Wiggins (1849-1908) is profiled at, which features a complete Works List and Bibliography by Dr. Dominique-René de Lerma, Professor of Music at Lawrence University, Appleton, Wisconsin]

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