Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Deirdre O'Connell: 'Blind Tom showed a profound and highly idiosyncratic aptitude for language.'

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

This is the third instalment of Africlassical’s excerpts from the Ballad of Blind Tom, Deirdre O'Connell’s biography about 19th century pianist and autistic savant, “Blind Tom” Wiggins.  Her website is BlindTom.org:


From the time he was young, Blind Tom showed a profound and highly idiosyncratic aptitude for language. His master’s nephew remembers that he “had the loveliest of visions, almost like poems but in his later years were loaded with peculiarities.” A few of these ‘poems’ survive in the form of his Vocal Compositions, published when he was seventeen and through pieces like The Man Who Snatched The Cornet Out of His Hands we can begin to fathom the mysterious gap between what made sense to Tom and what makes sense to the rest of us.

Tell him to come up/I’ll do your Topley/Don’t be uneasy/Until I see you.
Now he has gone up/Into his mason/Now you had hurt/Your Topley last night
Now comes the tutti/Don’t be in a hurry/Now I will have your/Band for to play me.
One man had come up/And bought his cymbals/And snatched his cornet/
Out of his hands.

At first glance, it is a nonsense although not an entire nonsense. The syntax holds, however simply, and the rhythm fits the eight line verse in 6/8 time. And while most individual lines make some kind of sense, the logic between one line and the next is less so. Most intriguing is Tom’s use of the words ‘Topley’, ‘tutti’ and ‘mason’. ‘Tutti’ – a musical term denoting ‘all together’ – is used in an appropriate, though unconventional, way. ‘Mason’ could be anything from a reference to the pianist William Mason, the secretive order, a tradesman, or even a phonics deviation of ‘mansion’ leaving ‘Topley’ as the only truly unfathomable word in Tom’s private lexicon. This poem was based on an actual occurrence experienced by Tom and perhaps, by random association, the meaning of ‘Topley’ became forever fixed in his mind.
Audiences who were captivated by the unexpected twists and turns of Tom’s paradoxical mind seemed to suffer from a weak information processing system of their own, refusing to integrate his myriad of talents into a meaningful whole. As far as they were concerned Blind Tom had a single gift that spontaneously arose and would never change. But Tom encapsulated the American experience more than they could ever imagine. Like him, the country was teetering on the verge of disintegration, the Union of States poised to shatter into a collection of disparate pieces. In the propaganda wars between abolition and slavery, Tom was both an instrument and cause celebre, a cipher of the new explosive acoustic landscape and an enduring symbol of the old.  

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