Tuesday, June 12, 2012

'The Ballad of Blind Tom: Slave Pianist, America's Musical Genius' Excerpted by Deirdre O'Connell

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

AfriClassical is pleased to welcome Deirdre O'Connell, whose website is BlindTom.org, as a Guest Blogger on Thomas "Blind Tom" Wiggins.  He is profiled at AfriClassical.com, which features a comprehensive Works List by Prof. Dominique-René de Lerma, www.CasaMusicaledeLerma.com:

For the next six months, Africlassical is featuring excerpts from the Ballad of Blind Tom, Deirdre O'Connell’s biography about 19th century pianist and autistic savant, “Blind Tom” Wiggins.

Wiggins was born a slave in Columbus, Georgia in 1849. His master, unprepared to feed and clothe a blind “useless burden”, promptly sold Tom, his parents and two sisters to a neighbor, General James Bethune. Tom’s mother did her utmost to keep Tom out of Bethune’s sight, aware that a peculiar fascination with sound and music also set him apart.

The Ballad of Blind Tom.
Excerpt from Chapter 4, Unwritten Legend.

In 1853, the Bethunes purchased a piano and, from the moment it first sounded, Tom was drawn to the Big House. The tone of the hammers striking the strings had a ‘peculiar and most remarkable effect on him’, recalled one of the Bethune lads. ‘At first he stood spellbound, then his eyes began to roll, his fingers to twitch and his body to sway back and forth when suddenly he convulsed with emotion and the contortions of his body was something painful to behold.’ The introduction was not complete before he was permitted to touch and smell each key – his nose as important as his fingers in discerning this musical elephant. And then he was removed from the room and his re-entry blocked. Barred from the house, he took up unofficial residency either outside the parlor room window or directly under the piano beneath the house.

But the levee could not hold back the flood. The moment the music stopped, Tom’s bid to get the piano was relentless. The first few unwelcomed visits produced a cacophony as Tom banged away at the keys with his fists, forearms and elbows - anything that would make a sound. Slipping in and out of the discord, an occasional three note refrain may have been heard, or a wild approximation of a melody’s shifts and turns. But, with surprising speed, his efforts became more refined until one day, when the family was at dinner, Tom crawled into the parlor and began to play a simple melody that one of the girls had been practicing earlier that day. No one paid much attention, everyone assuming it was a member of the family. They were naturally astonished when they discovered it was Charity’s blind son at the piano, although this did not stop them from unceremoniously booting him from the room.

This version of events – relayed by Charity – is largely consistent with the story journalist Henry Watterson heard, admittedly second hand but, significantly, before the Blind Tom publicity machine kicked in. The family were out of the room when they heard the piano tinkle, ‘they ran back and to their amazement, sat the chubby little black monkey on the stool, banging away for dear life, and yet not without sequence and rhythm, trying to repeat what they had just been playing and singing.’

Nine years on, however, this story was almost unrecognizable. Tom’s lust for the piano was matched by his management’s urge to mythologize a single watershed moment: the star-spangled moment the prodigy was born! The widely read 1862 Atlantic Monthly article described a four-year-old with almost superhuman powers. With stroke of a pen, Tom’s clumsy stab at sequence and rhythm becomes a triumphant fugue played with delicacy and truth, a distortion that subsequent versions of the story were loath to correct. The 1865 concert program insists that although Tom's hands were “not yet sufficiently developed to cover an octave” he repeated a difficult aria “even to the perception of a fault”. In 1868, the concert program was revised and the discovery story was calibrated with the Atlantic Monthly’s version of events plus a small concession to the truth: ‘his performance, though necessarily very imperfect, was marvelously strange; this was his first known effort at a tune [and] he played with both hands, and used the black as well as the white keys.’

Putting aside the “first known effort” claim, Tom’s midnight visit may very well have taken place. Yet perhaps the watershed it marked was not Tom’s discovery of the piano, but General Bethune’s discovery of Tom. Buried away in his Columbus office, his mind burdened with sectional politics, he barely registered his children’s incomprehensible reports about the “strange picaninny”. But now, with the child and the piano before him, the pieces fell into place. The realization dawned like a rose-petal sun bursting over the horizon: the “useless encumbrance” he had purchased out of pity had an extraordinary musical gift.

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