Confounded: The Enigma of “Blind Tom” Wiggins


Blind_tom“I am astounded. I cannot account for it, no one can. No one understands it,” a St Louis man uttered after watching Blind Tom perform in concert in 1866. His mystification was by no means isolated. Few other performers on the nineteenth century stage aroused as much curiosity as “Blind Tom” Wiggins. Born a slave in Georgia in 1848, by the time he died Hoboken in 1908, he was an international celebrity and his name was a byword for inexplicable genius. From an early age, it was clear that Blind Tom possessed extraordinary musical gifts. He could imitate, either vocally or musically, any sound he heard. This, coupled with an encyclopedic memory and all-encompassing passion for music, meant that by the age of sixteen, he hovered somewhere between a respected concert pianist and glorified sideshow freak. For the following forty years, he toured the length and breadth of North America, soaking up the sounds of the Civil War and Gilded Age, then baffling audiences with his astonishing gifts. During the tumultuous election campaign of 1860, for instance, he was taken to a political rally in support of Democratic presidential candidate Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois. Tom heard his speech and years after he would deliver this oration, capturing not only the senator's distinctive boom and mannerisms, but the crowd's heckles and cheers. Somehow he could recall the sensory snapshot of that moment with sparkling precision. One of his music teachers described how Tom, now a man in his thirties, learned Beethoven's 3rd Concerto to perfection in the space of an afternoon. He then stunned her by capping off the lesson by turning his back to the piano and playing the bass with his right hand and the treble with his left hand. Somehow Tom could separate the treble from the bass as if they were detached, self-contained streams that were independent of one another. Tom's gravity-defying acrobatics were also cause for much bewildered comment. He would routinely stand on one foot, his body bent forward and his back leg raised to form a “T.” Then he would leap. “It makes one giddy to see him make these circuits,” noted one man, “he comes six inches of the wall but never hits it.” Eccentric, ebullient, and hugely entertaining, nineteenth century audiences did not know what to make of Tom but one thing was certain: the American stage had never seen anyone like him.

Yet today this remarkable pianist is virtually forgotten. His story comes as a surprise to many who consider themselves well versed in African American history. “How is it I've never heard of him before?” is a question often put to me. The answer, I suspect, is that for all his genius, Blind Tom falls short on what an African American hero should be. After emancipation, he remained loyal to his master, electing to remain with him. Even at the height of his career, black newspaper editors kept him at arm's length, thinking him a buffoon who perpetuated negative stereotypes about the black race. Most damning of all, his most famous composition, The Battle of Manassas, tells the story of the great Confederate victory at Bull Run in April 1861. With a track record like this, little wonder some condemned Blind Tom to the ranks of Uncle Tom.

More here. (Note: One post throughout February will be dedicated to Black History Month.)