Tuesday, June 22, 2010


"Mark Twain called him an "inspired idiot," who could "play two tunes (on the piano) and sing a third at the same time, and let the audience choose the keys he shall perform in."

High/low-lights exerpted from the WiKi on Blind Tom:

Thomas "Blind Tom" Wiggins (May 25, 1849 – June 14, 1908) was an African American autistic savant and 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 most well-known American performing pianists.

Wiggins was born on the Wiley Edward Jones Plantation in Harris County, Georgia. Blind at birth, he was sold in 1850 along with his slave parents, Charity and Mingo Wiggins, to Columbus, Georgia lawyer, General James Neil Bethune. The new owner re-named the child Thomas Greene Bethune or Thomas Wiggins Bethune (according to different sources).

Because the blind lad could not perform work normally demanded of slaves, Tom was left to play and explore the Bethune plantation. At an early age, he evinced an interest in the piano after hearing the instrument played by Bethune's daughters. By age four he reportedly had acquired intuitive, if rudimentary—and imitative—piano skills based solely on hearing. He continually intruded upon the Bethune family residence to gain access to the piano, with Bethune's daughters abetting these intrusions. By age five Tom reportedly had composed his first tune, The Rain Storm, based on his aural impressions of a torrential downpour. After his extraordinary music skills were recognized by General Bethune, Tom was permitted to live in a room attached to the family house, away from the slave quarters. The small room was equipped with a piano. Neighbor Otto Spahr, reminiscing about Tom in the Atlanta Constitution in 1908 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."

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.

Tom was licensed to a traveling showman called Perry Oliver at the age of eight. 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.

In 1860, Blind Tom performed at the White House before President James Buchanan. Mark Twain attended many of Blind Tom's performances over several decades and chronicled the proceedings.

On- and offstage 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, skeptics attempted 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.

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 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."

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.

He 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.
Blind Tom Fan Club @ Facebook

To read more about  Blind Tom Wiggins click HERE     
To hear more compositions by Blind Tom Wiggins click HERE

Sewing Song MP3
Daylight MP3
The Rainstorm MP3

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