Blind Tom was one of the nineteenth century’s most extraordinary performers. An autistic savant with an encyclopedic memory, all-consuming passion for the piano and mind-boggling capacity to replicate – musically and vocally – any sound he heard, his name was a byword for eccentricity and oddball genius.
Blind Tom was born into slavery in Columbus, Georgia in 1848. His master, Wiley Jones, unwilling to clothe and feed a disabled ‘runt’, wanted him dead and, if not for vigilance of his mother, Charity, Tom would not have survived his infancy. But when Tom was nine months old, Wiley Jones put the baby, his two older sisters and parents up for auction, intending to sell the family off individually and not as a unit. The chances of anyone buying blind infant were remote - his death was as good as certain.
Tom’s life was again spared, thanks to the tenacity of his mother. A few weeks before the auction, Charity approached a neighbor, General James Bethune, and begged him to save them from the auction block. At first he refused her, but on the day of the sale, the lawyer and newspaperman turned up at the slave mart and purchased the family.
Apart from his blindness, Tom was ‘just like any other baby’ at first, but a few months after arriving at the Bethune Farm, things began to change and the toddler began to echo the sounds around him. If a rooster crowed, he made the same noise. If a bird sang, he would pursue it or attack his younger siblings just to hear them scream. If left alone in the cabin, he would drag chairs across the floor or bang pans and pots together – anything to make a noise.
By the age of four, Tom could repeat conversations ten minutes in length, but expressed his own needs in whines and tugs. Unless constantly watched, he would escape: to the chicken coop, woods and finally to the piano in his master’s house, the sound of each note causing his young body to tremble in ecstasy. After a string of unwelcome visits, General Bethune finally recognized the stirrings of a musical prodigy in the raggedy slave child and installed him in the Big House where he underwent extensive tuition.
By six, Tom was performing to sell out houses throughout Georgia. His early managers promoted him as an ‘untutored’, ‘natural’ musician - fully formed from the moment he first touched the piano - who could repeat any composition, no matter how difficult, after a single hearing.
The reality, of course, failed to match the showman’s spiel. Certainly Blind Tom had a flawless memory and was extraordinarily adept at imitating but even at the high point of his career, he was unable to reproduce complex polymorphic concertos after a single hearing. (He needed an entire afternoon to accomplish that). But if the piece had a recognizable harmony – a polka, waltz, slave song or minstrel hit - Tom could just about play it as an eight-year-old and easily nail it as a sixteen-year-old.
At the age of eight, Tom was licensed out to a travelling showman named Perry Oliver who promoted him as a Barnum-styled freak: ‘a gorgon with angel’s wings’. The more animalistic Tom was perceived to be – and newspapers routinely compared him to a baboon, trusty mastiff or hulking bear - the more astonishing the transformation that took place when he began to play. Before the audience’s very eyes, the incessant rocking and blank open-mouthed expression vanished and Tom would strike the keys with the precision and ease of a master. ‘I am astounded. I cannot account for it, no one can, no one understands it,’ wrote one baffled member of the public.
The mystery of Tom’s transformation has been solved, at least in part, as our understanding of autism has deepened. People on the autistic spectrum struggle to assimilate the sensory information bombarding them and many engage in repetitive behavior to deflect the overload. Music seems to have offered Tom this type of escape. Behind the piano, the splintering effects of autism – the sensory overload and fragmented perception – disappeared and Tom was able to experience a sense of integration: moments he clearly savored and his inspired outpourings of joy impressed many who witnessed him.
Cipher of the Times
Hard on the heels of Abraham Lincoln’s presidential nomination in 1860, Perry Oliver brought Blind Tom to Washington DC, sensing that something was about to erupt. But the issues that so obsessed his manager - slavery, abolition and secession - meant little to Tom although, ironically, he became a cipher of these times. He was taken to the deeply divided House of Congress to soak up the political vitriol and over the following weeks, served it up on stage to audiences chortling with laughter.
Later in the election campaign, Tom was taken to hear the Democrat’s presidential candidate, Senator Stephen Douglas and for years afterwards, performed the rally speech on stage. Tom perfectly captured the Douglas’s distinctive boom and somehow, inexplicably, his physical mannerisms and posture as well. Even more bizarre, was Tom’s inclusion of the crowd’s heckles and cheers. “Startling” was how one of Douglas’s supporters described it, despite at least one less-than-accurate slip: “The franatics of the North and the franatics of the South….”
Tom’s extraordinary powers of imitation, music and memory also earned him an invitation to the White House where he performed before President James Buchanan. While the exquisite quality of the executive mansion’s Chickering piano delighted him the most, one salient point eluded both him and the clique of Washington socialites before him: Blind Tom was the first African-American musician to officially perform in the White House.
With the outbreak of war, Tom enlisted his heart to Confederate cause – or so claimed his manager who staged a series of benefit concerts in aid of the Rebel war effort. In fact, Tom was as oblivious to sectional politics as he was to the secretive game slaves played with their masters; the lip service they paid to their Master’s authority before slipping into the woods to pray for their deliverance. Tom heard not these silent prayers but the crunch of marching feet, rat-a-tat-tat of the drum and fife, boom of musketry and cannon and mayhem of battle.
These sounds he absorbed, channelling them into his most famous composition, The Battle of Manassas, when just a lad of fifteen. The sum total of his perfect pitch, hypersensitive clarity, elastic vocal chords, lack of inhibition and total immersion in the world of sound enabled him to re-create a ‘harum-scarum’ battlefield like no other.
White southerners heralded The Battle of Manassas as a work of genius though black audiences were less effusive – not surprising, as Perry Oliver would introduce the piece as Tom’s spontaneous expression of loyalty to the Confederacy.
However this Oliver’s version does not tally with the facts. For a start, nine months passed before The Battle of Manassas was first heard in public – hardly making it a spur-of-the-moment tribute. The wily showman seems to have used Tom as a propaganda tool to serve his own political agenda.
The Wonder of the World
In the decades following the Civil War, Blind Tom became a household name, celebrated by luminaries like Mark Twain and mid-Western novelist, Willa Cather. He played virtuoso pieces to sell out crowds across Europe and America (his tour schedule was relentless), following them up with unashamedly populist novelties: imitations of trains, banjos and music boxes, playing one piece with his left hand, another with his right while singing a third, then repeating the feat with his back to piano.
At every concert, audience members put his musical memory to the test and by the time he hit his full virtuosic stride, Tom was virtually unbeatable. As the crowds wildly applauded, he would bound across the stage in a series of spectacular one-footed leaps, howling along with them. The American stage had never seen anything like him.
But Tom’s enormous fame was sullied by the deep-rooted racism of the period. His so-called ‘idiocy’ was continuously confused with the widespread belief that Africans were closer to the animal kingdom than Europeans. But his savant powers also made a nonsense of these race theories. How could a man with gifts like his be an example of ‘the lowest rung of humanity’, ‘a mind dredged of all intelligence and purity’? A century and a half ago, there were few earthly explanations, although several unearthly ones were floating about.
Séances, ouija boards and spectral materializations were all the rage in the late nineteenth century and many saw Tom as a medium, an empty vessel, channeling the genius of the great masters. Years earlier, in his hometown of Columbus, his fellow slaves had reached a similar conclusion: Tom was blessed with the gift of ‘second sight’, and could communicate with spirits from other worlds.
Tom was undoubtedly in communication with something. Many of his compositions were the fruit of a deep and profound dialogue with the natural and mechanical world. He would pass hours rapturously absorbed in a thunderstorm then sit down at the piano and play “something that the wind and rain said to me.”
Tom’s savant powers enabled him to revel in a sonic world alive with vibration and detail. Powered by an almost superhuman capacity to concentrate on details most people would find inconsequential, he could tune into a fantastically intricate world of differentiated repetition: the crank of the butter churn, the drip-drip-drip of water down a drainpipe, the clickety clack of a train or warble of a bird.
The bliss he experienced as he drank in these sounds, erroneously gave rise to the perception that he was perpetually happy, but after years of social and physical isolation – locked up alone in a hotel room day after day - Tom became morose and suspicious of ‘strangers’.
The Last American Slave
Tom had no concept of money and, not surprisingly, was exploited, deceived, manipulated and robbed blind by his white masters and guardians. Emancipation failed to deliver him from the shackles of slavery, his master’s son – John Bethune - merely morphing into the role of guardian and manager. In 1872, Tom was adjudged insane and the vast sums of money he earned (the equivalent of $5 million dollars today) was squandered on Bethune’s extravagant lifestyle. Then in 1884, Bethune was killed in a railroad accident.
At the time of his death John Bethune was embroiled in a bitter divorce. When his estranged wife, Eliza Bethune, discovered she was cut out of the will, she tracked down Tom’s impoverished mother and persuaded her to move to New York to mount a legal challenge. It took three years of legal wrangling, but in 1887, victory was theirs and ‘The Last American Slave’ – as the press dubbed Tom – was set free.
But Tom’s so-called ‘emancipation’ was little more than a sham. Once Charity naively handed Tom’s guardianship over to the Bethune’s widow, she was unceremoniously dumped and sent back to Georgia, never to see her son again.
Blind Tom’s final years were shrouded in secrecy and paranoia. It was widely believed he died in The Johnstown Flood of 1889, America’s biggest man-made disaster to date. In fact, he was in one of three places: touring the backwaters of North America (his glory days long behind him), holed up in a New York apartment on the lower east side or listening to the ocean’s roar at Eliza Bethune’s country hideaway in wilds of New Jersey (purchased at his expense). In 1903 he made a brief comeback on the vaudeville stage.
He died of a stroke in 1908 at the age of sixty and was buried in an unmarked grave at Brooklyn’s Evergreen Cemetery. Twenty years later, the daughter of his former master – Fanny Bethune – began efforts to disinter his body into the Bethune family plot in Georgia. A Columbus resident insists he carried out her request as best he could, Jim Crow laws forcing him to re-bury Tom at a nearby plantation. The Evergreen Cemetery, however, insists that the body was never removed. Today, two plaques – one in Columbus Georgia, the other in Brooklyn - mark his burial place: a fitting end to the enigma of Blind Tom.
By Deirdre O’Connell, author of The Ballad of Blind Tom .