Thomas “Blind Tom” Wiggins: African-American Slave Piano Prodigy

Thomas “Blind Tom” Wiggins

 

Thomas “Blind Tom” Wiggins (May 25, 1849 – June 14, 1908, age 59) was an African American musical prodigy on the piano. He had numerous original compositions published and had a lengthy and largely successful performing career throughout the United States. During the 19th century, he was one of the best-known American performing pianists. Although he lived and died before autism was described, he is now regarded as an autistic savant.

Wiggins was born on the Wiley Edward Jones Plantation in Harris County, Georgia. Blind at birth, he was sold in 1850 along with his enslaved parents, Charity and Domingo “Mingo” Wiggins, to a Columbus, Georgia lawyer, General James Neil Bethune.[1] Bethune was “almost the pioneer free trader” in the United States and “the first [newspaper] editor in the south to openly advocate secession“.[2] General Bethune renamed the child Thomas Greene Bethune or Thomas Wiggins Bethune (according to different sources).

Because Tom was blind, he could not perform work normally demanded of slaves, and was left to play and explore the Bethune plantation. At an early age, he showed an interest in the piano after hearing the instrument played by Bethune’s daughters. By age four he reportedly had acquired some piano skills by ear, and gained access to the piano. By age five Tom reportedly had composed his first tune, The Rain Storm,after a torrential downpour on a tin roof.[3] With his skills recognized by General Bethune, Tom was permitted to live in a room attached to the family house, equipped with a piano. Neighbor Otto Spahr, reminiscing about Tom in the Atlanta Constitution in 1908 (as reproduced in The Ballad of Blind Tom, by Deirdre O’Connell), observed: “Tom seemed to have but two motives in life: the gratification of his appetite and his passion for music. I don’t think I exaggerate when I state that he made the piano go for twelve hours out of twenty-four.”[4]

As a child, Tom began to echo the sounds around him, repeating accurately the crow of a rooster or the singing of a bird. If he was left alone in the cabin, Tom was known to begin beating on pots and pans or dragging chairs across the floor in an attempt to make any kind of noise. By the age of four, Tom was able to repeat conversations up to ten minutes in length but was barely able to adequately communicate his own needs, resorting to grunts and gestures.

Bethune hired out “Blind Tom” from the age of eight years to concert promoter Perry Oliver, who toured him extensively in the US, performing as often as four times a day and earning Oliver and Bethune up to $100,000 a year, an enormous sum for the time,[5] “equivalent to $1.5 million/year [in 2004], making Blind Tom undoubtedly the nineteenth century’s most highly compensated pianist”.[6] General Bethune’s family eventually made a fortune estimated at $750,000 at the hands of Blind Tom.[7] Oliver marketed Tom as a “Barnum-style freak” advertising the transformation from animal to artist. In the media, Tom was frequently compared to a bear, baboon, or mastiff.

Bethune hired professional musicians to play for Tom, who could faithfully reproduce their performances, often after a single listening. Eventually he learned a reported 7,000 pieces of music, including hymns, popular songs, waltzes, and classical repertoire.

There are conflicting historical accounts of Blind Tom’s first public performance, some indicating he was as young as three. One account from 1857 indicates that he had been performing publicly for several years. Newspaper reviews and audience reactions were favorable, prompting General Bethune to undertake a concert tour with Tom around their home state of Georgia. Tom later toured the South with Bethune or accompanied by hired managers, though their travels and bookings were sometimes hampered by the North-South hostilities which were drawing the nation towards Civil War. In 1860, Blind Tom performed at the White House before President James Buchanan; he was the first African-American to give a command performance at the White House. Mark Twain attended many of Blind Tom’s performances over several decades and chronicled the proceedings.

On- and off-stage, Tom often referred to himself in the third person (e.g., “Tom is pleased to meet you”). His piano recitals were augmented by other talents, including uncanny voice mimicry of public figures and nature sounds. He also displayed a hyperactive physicality both onstage and off. A letter written in 1862 by a soldier in North Carolina described some of Tom’s eccentric capabilities: “One of his most remarkable feats was the performance of three pieces of music at once. He played ‘Fisher’s Hornpipe’ with one hand and ‘Yankee Doodle‘ with the other and sang ‘Dixie‘ all at once. He also played a piece with his back to the piano and his hands inverted.” At concerts, skepticsattempted to confirm if Tom’s performance replications were mere trickery; their challenge took the form of having Tom hear and repeat two new, uncirculated compositions. Tom did so perfectly. The “audience challenge” eventually became a regular feature of his concerts.

In 1866, at age 16, Tom was taken on a European concert tour by General Bethune, who collected testimonials about Tom’s natural talents from composer-pianist Ignaz Moscheles and pianist-conductor Charles Hallé. These were printed in a booklet, “The Marvelous Musical Prodigy Blind Tom,” and used to bolster Tom’s international reputation.

In 1875, General Bethune transferred management of Blind Tom’s professional affairs to his son John Bethune, who accompanied Tom on tour around the U.S. for the next eight years. Beginning in 1875, John brought Blind Tom to New York each summer. While living with John in a boarding house on the Lower East Side, Tom added to his repertoire under the tutelage of Joseph Poznanski, who also transcribed new compositions by Tom for publication. Many of these were, at Tom’s insistence, published under such pseudonyms as Professor W.F. Raymond, J.C. Beckel, C.T. Messengale, and Francois Sexalise.

Tom’s piano-playing behavior, both during practice and performance, was eccentric. “We had two pianos in one room,” Poznanski told the Washington Post in 1886 (as recounted in O’Connell’s biography). “I would play for him and he would get up, walk around, stand on one foot, pull his hair, knock his head against the wall, then sit down and play a very good imitiation of what I had played with additions to it. His memory was something prodigious. He never forgot anything.” This led some critics to dismiss Tom as a novelty act, a “human parrot.” Novelist Willa Cather, writing in the Nebraska State Journal, called Tom “a human phonograph, a sort of animated memory, with sound producing power.”[4]

John Steinbeck has compared the main character in his short story, “Johnny Bear” to Blind Tom.

In 1882, John Bethune married his landlady, Eliza Stutzbach, who had demonstrated a knack for mollifying Tom’s sometimes volatile temperament. However, shortly after their marriage, John Bethune embarked on an extended tour of the U.S. with Tom, in effect abandoning Eliza. When Bethune returned home eight months later, his wife filed for divorce. The couple split up—John took Tom—but a bitter legal squabble ensued, with Eliza hounding John for financial support, a claim that the courts usually adjudicated in John’s favor. After John Bethune died in a railway accident in 1884, Tom was returned—over Eliza’s objections—to the care of General Bethune (now living in Virginia). Eliza sued General Bethune for ownership, with Tom’s elderly mother Charity enjoined by Eliza’s attorney as a party in the plaintiff’s suit. After a protracted custody battle in several courts, in August 1887 Tom was awarded to Eliza, who moved Tom back to New York. Charity accompanied them with the understanding that she would benefit financially from Tom’s earnings. However, after it became apparent that Eliza did not intend to honor any financial obligations to Charity, Tom’s mother returned to Georgia.

Tom continued performing and touring for a number of years under the management of Eliza and her attorney (and later husband) Albrecht Lerche. Tom was on tour in western Pennsylvania in May 1889 on the day of the Johnstown Flood, and rumor spread that he was among the casualties. Despite his continued appearances on the U.S. concert circuit, the rumor persisted for years, with some observers expressing skepticism that the Blind Tom who appeared in concert after 1889 was the “real Blind Tom.”

In this phase of his career, Tom usually introduced himself onstage in the third person, imitating the pronouncements of his various managers from years past. He talked about his mental state with a characteristic lack of self-awareness. He had been diagnosed as non compos mentis by a doctor, and in his foggy netherworld the phrase was a matter of personal pride. Willa Cather described the poignance of one such concert: “It was a strange sight to see him walk out on stage with his own lips—another man’s words—introduce himself and talk quietly about his own idiocy. There was insanity, a grotesque horribleness about it that was interestingly unpleasant. One laughs at the man’s queer actions, and yet, after all, the sight is not laughable. It brings us too near to the things that we sane people do not like to think of.”

Tom was still traveling, and presumably still performing, in 1894. On July 5 of that year, he arrived in Grand Junction, CO on his way eastward from California. The trainmen at that place were on strike against the railroads as part of the Pullman Strike, and Tom was stuck in town until July 9, when he continued eastward via the Colorado Midland Railroad.[8]

After being dogged by incessant legal challenges to her custodianship of Tom, Eliza took Tom off the concert circuit in the mid-1890s.

Tom spent the next ten years as a ward of Eliza and her husband, who divided their time between New York City and New Jersey’s Navesink Highlands. In 1903 Eliza arranged for Tom to appear on the popular vaudeville circuit, beginning with Brooklyn’s Orpheum Theater. He spent almost a year performing in vaudeville, before his health began to deteriorate. It is believed he suffered a stroke (described in some reports as “partial paralysis”) in December 1904, which ended his public performing career.

After the death of her husband, Eliza relocated to Hoboken, New Jersey, with Tom.[9] They kept out of public view, though neighbors could hear Tom’s piano playing at all hours of the day and night. Tom suffered a major stroke in April 1908, and died the following June. He was buried in the Cemetery of the Evergreens in Brooklyn, New York.

The people of Columbus, Georgia, raised a commemorative headstone for him in 1976. He was the subject of a play titled HUSH: Composing Blind Tom Wiggins, by Robert Earl Price, which was performed on the Atlanta stage with Del Hamilton as director.

Between 1970 and 2000, Dr. Geneva Handy Southall wrote a three-volume thesis titled Blind Tom: The Black Pianist Composer; Continuously Enslaved; it was published by Scarecrow Press in 2002.

In 1981 he was the subject of a film, “Blind Tom: The Story of Thomas Bethune” directed by Mark W. Travis.

In 1999 John Davis recorded an album of Tom’s original compositions on a CD entitled John Davis Plays Blind Tom. The CD package included essays by Amiri Baraka, Ricky Jay and Oliver Sacks.

In 2006, Reagan Grimsley published an article about preserving the sheet music of Blind Tom for future Generations. Titled “Discovering “Blind” Tom Wiggins: Creating Digital Access to Original Sheet Music at the Columbus State University Archives” it appeared in Music Reference Quarterly.

A full-length biography, ‘The Ballad of Blind Tom’, by Deirdre O’Connell was published by Overlook Press in 2009.[4]

Andre T. Regan’s 2013 documentary, The Last Legal Slave in America, documents the life and times of Blind Tom.

The Elton John song, “The Ballad of Blind Tom”, from his 2013 album “The Diving Board“, is about Blind Tom.

Blind Tom Wiggins is the subject of a novel, “The Song of the Shank,” (2014) by Jeffrey Reynard Allen.[11]

Source: Wikipedia

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Queen Calafia: The Spirit of California

queen calafia

Calafia was a fictional warrior queen who ruled over a kingdom of Black women living on the mythical Island of California. The character of Queen Calafia was penned by Spanish writer Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo who first introduced her in his popular novel entitled Las sergas de Esplandián (The Adventures of Esplandián), written around 1500.[1]

In the novel, Calafia is a pagan who is convinced to raise an army of women warriors and sail away from California with a large flock of trained griffins so that she can join a Moslem battle against Christians who are defending Constantinople. In the siege, the griffins harm enemy and friendly forces, so they are withdrawn. Calafia and her ally Radiaro fight in single combat against the Christian leaders, a king and his son the knight Esplandián. Calafia is bested and taken prisoner, and she converts to Christianity. She marries a cousin of Esplandián and returns with her army to California for further adventures.[2]

The name of Calafia was likely formed from the Arabic word khalifa (religious state leader) which is known as caliph in English and califa in Spanish. Similarly, the name of Calafia’s monarchy, California, likely originated from the same root, fabricated by the author to remind the 16th century Spanish reader of the reconquista, a centuries-long fight between Christians and Moslems which had recently concluded in Spain. The character of Calafia is used by de Montalvo to portray the superiority of chivalry in which the attractive virgin queen is conquered, converted to Christian beliefs and married off. The book was very popular for many decades—Hernán Cortés read it—and it was selected by author Miguel de Cervantes as the first of many harmful books to be burnt by characters in his famous novel Don Quixote.[2]

Calafia, also called Califia, has been depicted as the Spirit of California, and has been the subject of modern-day sculpture, paintings, stories and films; she often figures in the myth of California’s origin, symbolizing an untamed and bountiful land prior to European settlement.[3]

Source: sitfu.com

Elizabeth Key Grinstead: First Woman of African Descent to Sue For Freedom From Slavery

Elizabeth Key Grinstead was the 1st woman of African ancestry in the colonies to sue for freedom from slavery & win. She won her & her son's freedom on July 21, 1656 in the colony of Virginia. She sued based on the fact that her father was an Englishman & that she was a baptized Christian. The lawsuit in 1655 was one of the earliest "freedom suits" by a person of African ancestry in the English colonies.:

Elizabeth Key Grinstead was the 1st woman of African ancestry in the colonies to sue for freedom from slavery & win. She won her & her son’s freedom on July 21, 1656 in the colony of Virginia. She sued based on the fact that her father was an Englishman & that she was a baptized Christian. The lawsuit in 1655 was one of the earliest “freedom suits” by a person of African ancestry in the English colonies. Read more at http://thenewagenda.net/2011/02/10/three-stories-of-black-women-from-american-history/

Nat Love a.k.a. Deadwood Dick: The Old West’s Greatest Black Cowboy

Nat Love (pronounced “Nate” Love) (June 1854 – 1921), (sometimes “Deadwood Dick“), was an African-American cowboy and former slave in the period following theAmerican Civil War. His self-reported exploits and claims (as found in his published autobiography) have made him the most famous Black folk hero of the Old West.[1]  

Read more at Wikipedia

Lucien Alexis: “The Black Einstein”

From The CreolegenLucien Alexis Was Nicknamed

Not very much is known of his early childhood in New Orleans but what is known are the achievements he would make in the later years to come. Born to Louis Victor & Alice Saucier Alexis he was educated in the local schools where he excelled academically. Lucien was determined to attend Harvard University. Not having the finances to do so he began working in 1907 (at the age of twenty) as a railway mail clerk, saving for the education he so desperately desired.
By the time he reached twenty-seven,  he had set aside enough money for four years of college. He applied and was accepted at Harvard but was asked to attend (for one year) Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, a prestigious preparatory high school. While at Exeter, he lived in the home of Mr.H.F.Quimby and soon developed a keen interest in foreign languages and the sciences. By now he had had only enough money for three years upon entering Harvard so he managed by graduating “cum laude” a year early (1917). It was there at Harvard that he earned the nickname: “The Negro Einstein.” Read more here