Tuesday, July 10, 2012

'THUNDERSTRUCK,' second installment from 'The Ballad of Blind Tom' by Deirdre O'Connell

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

This is the second installment from The Ballad of Blind Tom to be featured on Africlassical.,


Thunderstorms were an electric rite of spring in Georgia, the high drama of the skies: a volatile, wild and utterly compelling climax after the oppressive heat and humidity of the day. They assaulted the senses with such power, it seared the memory and begged Blind Tom to channel it into the keys of the piano.
The minute the skies broke open, five-year-old Tom could be found in a forgotten corner of the Bethune homestead. Here, a tin gutter ran from the roof to within a foot of the ground. During a hard rain, water trickled down in soothing musical tones and Tom would arched over the drain, lying flat on his back, locked into the gentle downstream gurgle as it mixed with the sporadic tick tick tick of the drops. According to the 1868 concert program, after one exceptionally severe thunderstorm, Tom listened to the drain then “went to the piano and played what is now known as his Rain Storm and said it was what the rain, the wind and the thunder said to him.”
And thus, Tom’s first major composition was born, conceived at the tender age of five. “Listen to his own Rain Storm,” wrote a music critic in 1882, “and you shall hear first the thunder’s reverberating peal, and anon the gentle patter of the rain drops on the roof. Soon they fall thick and fast coming with a rushing sound. Again is heard the thunder’s awful roar, while the angry winds mingle in the tempestuous fray. After a while, the tempest gradually ceases; all is calmness; and you will look with wonder upon this musical musician, and marvel that the pianoforte can imitate so closely the sounds made by the angry elements.”
But is this truly a reflection of the child’s musical abilities? If so, then it is a towering achievement. The problem is that until the release of the sheet music in 1865 – ten years after the inspirational thunderstorm - such praise was conspicuous in its absence. Indeed until he was sixteen, this ‘masterpiece’ barely rates a mention (as compared with the open mouthed flummox that followed his performances of Yankee Doodle on one hand, Dixie on the other, while singing The Fisher’s Hornpipe).
But throughout his early career, Tom did perform a novelty styled ‘musical feat’ named What the Wind, Thunder and Rain said to Tom. Loose and unformed, one pundit described the prodigy’s ‘ability to produce the sound of falling rain, the sounds of hail, the sounds of wind blowing through the trees’ as ‘startling’. And this seems to be the piece that Tom composed when he was five years old.

[Thomas “Blind Tom” Wiggins is profiled at AfriClassical.com, which features a complete Works List by Prof. Dominique-René de Lerma, http://www.CasaMusicaledeLerma.com]

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