Monday, May 24, 2010

'The Ballad of Blind Tom, Slave Pianist,' by Deirdre O’Connell, Tells of Musical Genius Born May 25, 1849

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

Deirdre O'Connell is an Australian writer whose biography, The Ballad of Blind Tom, Slave Pianist: America's Lost Musical Genius has been featured in print and broadcast media in many places, renewing interest in Thomas "Blind Tom" Wiggins (1849-1908) since its publication in 2009. Performances of piano works composed by Wiggins have become steadily more numerous in recent years.
Wiggins was an African American pianist and composer. He was a blind and autistic slave who nevertheless was a musical genius. His profile at is based primarily on the book Blind Tom, The Black Pianist-Composer: Continually Enslaved, by the late Professor Geneva Handy Southall, who devoted her academic career to Wiggins. She points out that he never really gained his freedom or the control of his own earnings, even after the Civil War.

Professor Dominique-René de Lerma has compiled a complete Works List which is featured on the Thomas Wiggins page at the website. He also wrote the Introduction for Blind Tom, The Black Pianist-Composer: “Reading through this important volume will evoke pain, grief, and outrage. In that respect we find a ready parallel to Sam Dennison's Scandalize My Name (Garland Publishing, 1982). But these stories must be told. The message is not only music or biography, it is not even only American history. Sentient readers will know how far the implications can reach.”

In 1850 Tom, his parents, and two brothers were sold to James Neil Bethune, a lawyer and newspaper editor in Columbus, Georgia. Tom was fascinated by music and other sounds, and could pick out tunes on the piano by the age of four. His concert debut in Atlanta took place when he was eight years old. In 1858 Tom was hired out as a slave-musician, at a price of $15,000.

In 1859, at the age of 10, he became the first African American performer to play at the White House, for President James Buchanan. His piano pieces “Oliver Galop” and “Virginia Polka” were published in 1860. During the Civil War he was back with his owner, and proceeds from his concerts were donated to the Confederate relief effort. By 1863 he played his own composition, “Battle of Manassas.”

By 1865, 16-year-old Tom Wiggins, now “indentured” to James Bethune, could play difficult works of Bach, Chopin, Liszt, Beethoven, and Thalberg. He also played pieces after one hearing. Blind Tom Wiggins became an internationally recognized performer. By 1868 Tom and the Bethune family lived on a Virginia farm in the summer, while touring the United States and Canada the rest of the year, averaging $50,000 annually in concert revenue. James Bethune eventually lost custody of Tom to his late son's ex-wife, Eliza Bethune. Charity Wiggins, Tom's mother, was a party to the suit, but was bitterly disappointed when she did not win control of her son or his income.

Comment by email:
Hello Bill, I'm glad the publicity is taking effect. Thanks for the plug. And Happy Birthday to Tom! Best, Deirdre

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