Well folks, this is the CD that started it all! Featuring John’s performances of fourteen works by the Georgia slave sensation, Thomas Wiggins, more popularly known as “Blind Tom,” this recording “singlehandedly revived the lost legacy of Wiggins,” according to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and has since been deemed “a classic” by The Classical Music Guide. A subsequent cover article about the recording in the “Arts & Leisure” section of The New York Times catapulted the CD into a top-ten seller at Tower Records and Amazon.com. In addition to John’s own liner note, the accompanying booklet includes essays by the Hollywood actor, sleight-of-hand artist, and scholar of eccentric performers, Ricky Jay; the neurologist and eminent writer, Oliver Sacks; and the incendiary poet, playwright, music critic, and political activist, Amiri Baraka (formerly LeRoi Jones).
Thomas Wiggins, more popularly known as “Blind Tom,” was the first black superstar performer in America, this country’s first documented outsider artist, and the first in a long line of African-American musicians, including many of the bluesmen that followed, to have been canonized in life and marginalized and all but forgotten in death. Born to Mingo and Charity Wiggins in Columbus, Georgia in 1849, Thomas Greene Wiggins was sold with his family during his infancy to General James Neil Bethune, a Georgia country lawyer and anti-abolitionist newspaper publisher so prominent that he was eulogized in The New York Times as “the first editor in the South to openly advocate secession,” and “the pioneer free trader in this country.” Imagine the shock when the infant, blind from birth, deemed mentally-impaired, and thrown in as mere chattel in the deal, was soon discovered playing one of the General’s daughter’s piano pieces in the parlor while the Bethune family was seated around the dinner table. From that moment, Tom’s musical education began. Mary, the oldest daughter and the family’s most accomplished pianist, immediately started the boy in on lessons. Eventually, more professionally-recognized instructors, pedagogues that would oversee Tom’s artistic development throughout the rest of his career, were called in. Their teaching and the repertoire they favored were absorbed so rapidly that, in 1857, General Bethune decided to sponsor a local debut, leading subsequently to various small tours around the state.
In 1859, family and career responsibilities forced Bethune to hire Tom out for three years to the Georgia planter and impresario, Perry Oliver, at the cool sum of $15,000. A shrewd promoter, Oliver immediately attempted to sell the prodigy’s remarkable abilities according to the well-worn racial stereotypes of the era, advertising his appearances as the ultimate animal freak show, P.T. Barnum-style. A concert by “Blind Tom,” Wiggins’ newly-assigned stage name, was no longer primarily a showcase for the truly legitimate aspects of the young boy’s talent, but instead, a forum for a litany of flamboyant pianistic and extra-musical stunts — e.g. his ability to play back pieces verbatim on the spot after a single hearing; perform complex classical compositions with his back to the piano; sing a song while playing another in his left hand, and yet a third in his right; give renditions of well-known political speeches of the era in exactly the same cadence and intonation they were originally enunciated; and recite texts convincingly in foreign languages he could not even speak. According to Oliver’s often apocryphal publicity materials, all this was achieved by an utter “idiot” without the benefit of any instruction, and was guaranteed to be accompanied by the performer’s bestial grunts and horrible facial and bodily contortions. Perhaps most eerie was Tom’s tendency in concert to introduce each of his own compositions in the third person.
While such interpersonal detachment suggests that Wiggins may have been autistic, if a quite high functioning one, sadly, there appears to have been very little incentive during his lifetime to break those habits in the pianist that only further alienated him from those with whom he came into contact and that eventually contributed to his dismissal from the annals of music history. No doubt, Oliver and the Bethunes could have focused more of the public’s attention on the artistry of Tom’s playing and attempted to soften the edges of Wiggins’ extreme body language. But, if anything, given General Bethune’s well-documented paternalistic, pro-slavery views and a nineteenth-century America mostly hostile to blacks and endlessly drawn to the freak show, Tom’s handlers saw the more sensational aspects of the boy’s musical talent and his unusual physical bearing as commodities to be embraced and exploited. Had Wiggins been born just a generation or two later, his idiosyncratic movements may have been viewed quite differently by those around him and the society at large. The slave musician’s “primitive” concert deportment, after all, bears a striking resemblance to that of a more modern-day sightless, black pianist from Georgia, Ray Charles, whose omnipresent electric grin and herky-jerky torso at the keyboard are considered today the ultimate in Rock ‘n Roll hip.
At a typical Blind Tom recital, the program was strictly by request: audience members would select those works they wanted to hear from a laundry list of pieces distributed beforehand. Eventually, the slave pianist’s repertoire grew to an astounding seven thousand established works, including those of Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, Mendelssohn, and Liszt, not to mention over a hundred composed by himself. On the surface, some of the latter seem merely clever keyboard extrapolations on ubiquitous American and European vernacular music, represented on John Davis Plays Blind Tom by various gallops (Cyclone Galop, Oliver Galop, and Vivo Galop), a waltz (Wellenklange), a polka (Virginia Polka), two marches (Grand March Resurrection and March Timpani), and a nocturne (Reve Charmant). Upon closer examination, however, these pieces, and many others included on this CD, employ a host of uniquely evocative images, mostly, of natural phenomena (in
The Rainstorm, composed by Wiggins at just five years of age, Cyclone Galop, Voice of the Waves, Water in the Moonlight, and Daylight), other musical instruments (a kettle drum in March Timpani and the fife and drum in Battle of Manassas), and various mechanical devices (a sewing machine, for example, in his
Sewing Song). Particularly notable are various sound effects (the tone clusters used to simulate cannon shots, and the imitation of a train and its whistle by the performer’s mouth) in Battle of Manassas, composed by Tom after hearing a firsthand description of that important Confederate victory by one of the Bethune sons home in Columbus on furlough from the War. (Similar effects would not be introduced again by composers until the early twentieth century, almost fifty years later.) Battle of Manassas became Wiggins’ most popular composition and remains one of the great battle pieces of any period. Also heard on John Davis Plays Blind Tom is Wiggins’ set of variations on the Civil War song, When This Cruel War is Over, the only one of Blind Tom’s notorious in-concert improvisations to have been transcribed and published.
Under Oliver’s aegis, Tom’s career took off. The slave sensation’s reputation became so widespread during those years that, in 1860, he was summoned to the White House for a command performance before President Buchanan. And leading up to the Civil War, the annual earnings from his concerts reached an astounding $100,000, equivalent today to a million-and-a-half dollars a year. In short, Blind Tom had become the most highly-paid pianist of the nineteenth century.
The onset of the Civil War cut short General Bethune’s arrangement with Oliver. However, Tom continued to give recitals south of the Mason-Dixon line, ironically often organized by Bethune for the benefit of the Confederacy. Rather than allow his property to go free after the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, the General managed to retain control over Tom’s career by inducing Mingo and Charity into signing an indenture agreement binding their son to the Bethune family for another five years in exchange for services rendered. But before the ink on the contract had had a chance to dry, Tabbs Gross, a former slave so successful as a show business promoter that he had become known as “the Barnum of the African Race,” challenged Bethune’s guardianship in an 1865 writ of habeus corpus suit filed in a Cincinnati court. The trial, which received national attention, culminated in a judge’s decision, based on dubious jurisdictional grounds, in favor of General Bethune.
It was during Tom’s first European tour the following year that his promoters were first able to garner praise by professional musicians of international standing, first from Ignaz Moscheles, the illustrious Czech pianist, friend to Beethoven, and teacher of Mendelssohn and Thalberg, Liszt’s storied rival, and subsequently from Charles Halle, the highly-respected German pianist and conductor, and the first person to perform all thirty-two Beethoven Piano Sonatas. Their glowing testimonials in hand and the Bethune’s $100,000 richer, Blind Tom returned to the United States a year later.
In 1868, General Bethune left Columbus for good, relocating just his immediate family and Tom to “Elway,” a farm in Warrenton, Virginia, forty miles southwest of Washington, D.C. In 1870, Tom’s indenture contract with General Bethune expired. With Mingo now dead and Charity still living in Georgia, too far away to monitor her son’s ongoing professional affairs, no one was around to protest when Bethune had a Virginia probate judge declare Tom incompetent and name Bethune’s son, John, legal guardian. In 1875, John Bethune moved with Tom to New York City, where both took up residence at the boardinghouse of one Eliza Stutzbach on St. Marks Place in Greenwich Village. Seven years later, in 1882, John married his landlady. Their domestic bliss, however, was short-lived, and John attempted to have the union annulled. But before the dispute could be resolved, John Bethune was accidentally crushed to death while trying to board a moving train at the P.W. & B. Railroad Station in Wilmington, Delaware.
With his guardian’s untimely death, Tom, yet again, found himself the central bargaining chip in a custody battle. In 1885, Eliza Bethune, seeking revenge from the Bethunes following the discovery that she had been completely written out of her deceased husband’s will, induced Charity, Tom’s biological mother, to file a second writ of habeus corpus suit against General Bethune, a celebrated case that was batted around the U.S. courts for nearly two years. Finally, on July 30th 1887, Judge Bond, a federal judge in Baltimore, passed an order that took Thomas Wiggins out of the thirty-eight year custody of the Bethune family. But instead of making him a free man, at long last out from under the yoke of slavery and the Bethunes, the court appointed Eliza Bethune, at the naive request of Charity, Tom’s mother, his new legal guardian.
Ironically, Tom was so distraught at his forced separation from his former owner, that, other than a highly-publicized series of return concerts at Manhattan’s Circle Theater in 1904, he spent the last twenty years of his life in semi-retirement. His ongoing absence from the stage spawned both rumors of his death, initially in the historic Johnstown, Pennsylvania, flood in the 1880s, and the careers of various Blind Tom impersonators on the burgeoning vaudeville circuit. The money, however, kept rolling in from the ongoing publishing of Tom’s sheet music and the few performances he did give. Profits were pocketed almost exclusively by Eliza Bethune Lerche, eventually married to the same attorney, A.J. Lerche, who had handled Charity’s writ of habeus corpus suit against General Bethune.
Following their subsequent separation, Eliza moved with Tom, in 1903 to a large apartment house in Hoboken, New Jersey (Charity, unhappy in New York, had long ago returned to Georgia). Although exquisite piano music could be heard coming at all hours from their first-floor flat, curiously, no one in the building seemed to have any notion that the legendary musician was living within their midst. And on June 13th, 1908, a stone’s throw from Manhattan but a world away from the Georgia plantation on which he was reared, Thomas Wiggins died of a stroke at age 59 in his Hoboken apartment. To the same Evergreens Cemetery in Brooklyn at which Eliza Bethune Lerche would be buried a few years hence, he was laid to rest in an unmarked grave.
Or was he? Not long ago, I was escorted through a small opening in the bushes near the old Bethune plantation in Columbus into a tiny shaded grove. In it was a grave on which had been placed a spanking new headstone amidst a great deal of fanfare in 1976, the United States’ bicentennial year. Columbusites claim this to be the final resting place of their most-honored native son, the legendary Blind Tom.
Of course, after seeing this firsthand, I immediately inquired about this lingering discrepancy at the administrative offices of the Evergreens, a mere fifteen minutes drive from my home in New York City. Upon checking and rechecking cemetery records, it was confirmed that the body of Thomas Wiggins, a.k.a. Blind Tom Bethune, had never been moved from that humble patch of dirt in Brooklyn over which I have stood many times. So ended the life of the first in a long line of celebrated African-American musicians whose artistic contributions unfortunately were relegated to the musical junk heap.
I’m happy to report, however, that Blind Tom’s connection to the great bluesmen that followed, so many of whom were buried in graves that only recently have been decorated with markers, does not end here. On July 1st, 2002, a mere ninety-four years after the slave pianist’s death, a gravestone was finally unveiled atop Thomas Wiggins’ remains in Brooklyn in a ceremony organize by his descendants and me. At it, I was able to honor his legacy with a performance of Reve Charmant on a piano provided by my friends at Steinway & Sons.
Much more than just the acknowledgment of Wiggins’ final resting place, however, has been accomplished via John Davis Plays Blind Tom. With the CD’s release, the public was able to hear for the first time professional renditions of Wiggins’ pieces, unfairly dismissed upon the composer’s death from the continuum of nineteenth-century American roots music. Just as important has been the degree to which Blind Tom has entered the public consciousness. Since 2000, his name, image, and music, has been turning up everywhere.
If you don’t yet have a copy of John Davis Plays Blind Tom in your collection, I hope you take a moment to purchase one. And don’t forget the essays in the accompanying booklet about Wiggins by noted experts from disparate fields. In addition to mine, the one by Ricky Jay, the virtuoso sleight-of-hand artist, Hollywood actor, and scholar of some of history’s most eccentric performers, focuses on the magical and mysterious implications of Blind Tom’s legacy and persona. Oliver Sacks, the neurologist and popular author, in an excerpt adapted from the essay, “Prodigies,” in his book An Anthropologist on Mars, attempts to put Tom’s autism into perspective. And Amiri Baraka, the celebrated American poet, playwright, and music critic formerly known as LeRoi Jones, expounds on the racial implications behind the freakish portrayals of Wiggins and the dismissal of his talents during and after his lifetime.
Welcome to the multi-faceted world of Blind Tom.
— John Davis