MOUNT VERNON — The house was packed. A buzz of excitement ran through the air. Friends and neighbors discussed the performance to come, many with skepticism.
The things that had been heard about “Blind Tom” were hard to believe. A young, sightless black man — a former slave — barely able to converse with people, but supposedly able to play beautiful, complicated piano music?
Some even claimed this prodigy could hear pieces of music once and immediately play back what he had heard, no matter how complicated.
It seemed too fantastic to believe. Yet it was said that Blind Tom had performed in the White House at the request of President James Buchanan. And he had certainly performed all over the United States and even in Europe.
Now it was time for Mount Vernon to hear Blind Tom. The date was Dec. 4, 1869.
The curtain raised and a southern gentleman walked to the lip of the stage. A few seconds later, a Black man about the age of 20 wandered out onto stage behind the master of ceremonies. As the host began explaining to the audience that ‘Thomas Bethune’ was an idiot, a blind, almost savage creature, one that had been officially determined non compos mentis by a medical doctor.
Tom wandered the stage, muttering and grimacing to himself, sometimes making spastic arm gestures. Whenever he approached the proscenium arch, or the backdrop, or the square grand piano sitting center stage, the young man seemed to sense its presence, reaching out with his hand to touch it before running into it.
The gentleman pontificated that despite Tom’s idiocy, God had graced him with an extraordinary gift for music, which “Tom will be delighted to share with this fine audience.”
“Tom will be delighted to share with this fine audience,” Tom echoed, in a voice matching the phrasing and cadence of the host.
Finally sitting down at the piano, Tom began playing. And the crowd realized, the hard-to-believe stories were true.
At the height of his career, it was estimated that Thomas Wiggins — his real hame — had a repertory of more than 7,000 pieces of music. Many were popular tunes of the day, many were classics by the great composers such as Chopin, Beethoven, and Mozart.
He also had a substantial number of original pieces. And then there were the pieces that various audience members had played to him during his tours to challenge his memory. He remembered those, too, sometimes adding them to his repertory, sometimes creating variations on them to amuse himself.
Who was this remarkable prodigy?
Thomas Wiggins was born in 1849 on a plantation in Georgia to Mingo and Charity Wiggins. He was a slave, as were his parents. The slave owner realized within a few months that the baby was not developing like a “normal” child, and he said that the baby was a “worthless runt” and would be better off dead.
Charity Wiggins kept a close eye on the baby, though, making sure that nothing was done to him. The slave owner decided that he needed to get rid of the problem child and its defiant mother, and put the whole family up for auction.
Charity approached the master of the neighboring plantation, General James Bethune, and begged him to purchase the family, so that they wouldn’t get sold off, one by one. Bethune expressed reluctance to get involved, but on the day of the auction, he showed up and purchased the Wiggins family.
Bethune realized quickly that the young boy, Tom, was a problem. The boy was blind and communicated mainly in grunts. The only emotion he seemed to have was a sheer delight in sound.
Birds, wind, storms, trains, horses. Everything caught Tom’s attention. He loved to bang on pots and pans and push around objects to make noise. And when General Bethune’s daughter had her weekly piano lesson, little Tom was transfixed. He kept trying to approach the piano, but was, of course, scolded and pulled back.
One day General Bethune and his wife had just sat down at the tablefor supper. They were chatting, not paying much attention to the sound of their eldest daughter, Mary, practicing the piano in the next room. When a servant brought food to the table, Mrs. Bethune called for Mary to come to the table.
Mary appeared in the doorway on the opposite side of the room from where the sound of the piano was still coming.
“Who is playing the piano?” she said.
The family rushed into the next room and found 3-year old Thomas sounding out what he had heard during Mary’s piano lesson, and doing a remarkably good job of it. Mary immediately took it upon herself to start teaching Tom how to play. Within weeks the boy had progressed so much, Bethune began showing him off to friends and neighbors.
Over the next few years, Bethune began having Tom play public events. More and more people heard him and walked away stunned, shaking their heads.
At the age of eight, Tom was licensed to Perry Oliver, a showman who would take Tom on his first tours. Tom showed neither great like for nor dislike of touring. He was mainly interested in how far it was between pianos when they were traveling. And when he wasn’t playing music or humming to himself, his only other interest was eating.
Tom’s fame spread like wildfire. By the end of the 1850s, Blind Tom, as Oliver billed him, was bringing in over $100,000 per year. That figure is not adjusted for inflation. Adjusted for inflation, the figure would be in the millions.
The truth is that before he was even a teenager, Thomas Wiggins – known professionally as “Blind Tom Bethune” – was the highest paid piano player in the world.
United States President James Buchanan heard about the remarkable prodigy and had him perform at the White House in 1860. At one point, he was challenged to listen to pair of young women playing a duet, the challenge being for the piece to be repeated with Tom playing one of the parts. The piece was played.
As he was listening, Tom wandered around the stage, pulling on his hair, at one point standing on one foot, at another moment softly knocking his forehead against the wall.
Then he sat down with one of the young women and began to play the duet perfectly. Suddenly the young woman gave a wink to the audience and jumped ahead to a different part of the song.
“You cheat me! You cheat me!” Tom bellowed out, and pushed her off the bench and played the rest of the song himself, approximating all four hands. It’s amazing to think that a young Black male could physically push a white woman off a piano bench in front of a crowd and not get in serious trouble for it, or even lynched, but such was the spell of the mystery of Tom’s talent.
Just before the tour where Tom appeared in Mount Vernon, he toured Europe and received endorsements from major composers and musicians such as Ignaz Moscheles and Charles Hallé (after whom England’s Hallé Orchestra is named). Under Perry Oliver’s tutelage, his range of performance stunts increased, too.
One trick was teaching Tom how to perfectly play a classical work with his back to the piano. Another astonishing trick was when Tom would play one tune with his left hand, a different tune with his right hand, while singing a third tune with his deep, handsome voice.
Testing Tom’s memory and mimicry, Oliver took the boy once to hear a speech by orator Stephen Douglas. For the rest of his life, Tom could recite the entire speech in Douglas’ voice, replete with intejections made by hecklers in the audience. He could memorize conversations, even speeches in foreign languages, perfectly.
He showed little sign of understanding the words, but he relished the sound of the words. Tom created his first piece of music when he was five, imitating the patter of rain on the piano. He ended up coming up with about 100 original works, which were written down by others. One imitates the sound of a sewing machine, another imitates waves.
All these elements are couched within the framework of the standard popular music of the day, with sentimental tunes and often cliched chord progressions. And popular music was his learned language: one will search in vain for anything particularly Black sounding about the music. His musical vocabulary is very much mid-1800s (White) Americana.
But a closer listen shows Tom sometimes varied the expected patterns, creating something a little more distinctive, even in his most straightforward popular pieces. But in the pictorial works, essentially piano tone poems, Tom was often startlingly original.
The use of dissonant clusters of notes in music was “invented” by such composers as Charles Ives and Henry Cowell in the early 1900s. Yet Blind Tom was using such devices more than 50 years earlier.
This is not to say that Tom Wiggins was a genius in the manner of Beethoven, because that is not the case. He showed little understanding of the difference between his most cliched moments and his most original moments, often going easily from one to the other.
“The Rainstorm” starts with a highly derivative melody, then abruptly veers off into a vividly naturalistic depiction of a storm, then reprises the trite melody, utterly without irony.
Tom’s biggest tour-de-force was “The Battle of Manassas.” One of General Bethune’s sons fought at the First Battle of Manassas (better known in the North as the First Battle of Bull Run). It had been the first major battle of the war, and the Union forces expected to end the whole war with one decisive victory.
Instead, they got their proverbial behinds handed to them by the rebels. One of those rebels was a son of the Bethune family.
When the soldier came home on leave, he described the battle in detail to the family, and Tom made his own musical depiction of the scene. He made use of fife and drum tunes, patriotic songs such as “Yankee Doodle,” “Dixie,” and even “Le Marseillaise.”
He would pound his fist on the low keys of the piano to simulate cannon fire, and use short, staccato notes up high to portray rifle fire. He even gave the Rebel Yell and a shrill whistle to depict a steam train celebrating the Southern victory.
Listening to a performance of “The Battle of Manassas,” it is interesting to note one of Blind Tom’s quirks. While it seems that he had the ability to mimic very precisely, sometimes he chose not to.
One time when Tom altered part of a melody he had listened to, the man who played the melody accused Tom of not correctly remembering the tune. Tom just said, “No, sounds better like this,” and played it his own way.
You can hear this in the battle piece when Tom makes use of the tune written by native Mount Vernonite Daniel Decatur Emmett, “Dixie.” Tom slightly alters one passing phrase of the song to suit himself. It is also said he would often improvise, adding decorative flourishes to melodies that he didn’t find interesting enough.
With the constitutional amendment freeing slaves in 1865 after the war ended, General Bethune knew that he’d be losing a remarkable source of income if Tom were to leave him. He talked Tom’s parents into signing a five-year indentured servitude agreement with him, which the uneducated parents assumed was their only option.
In 1865, an African-American concert promoter sued Bethune in an attempt to wrench control of the musician away, but the courts sided with Bethune. In 1870, Bethune had Tom declared mentally incompetent and had his son John assigned as Tom’s legal guardian.
John moved Tom to New York City, where they lived at a boarding house when not touring. John Bethune married the boarding house proprietor, Eliza Stutzman, who had a talent for keeping the sometimes noisy and anxious Tom calm.
But when John died in an accident, Eliza found that John had written her out of his will and had attempted to give Tom to other Bethune relatives. Eliza sued for custody, inviting Tom’s mother, Charity Wiggins, to come north to help out her case.
Charity did, and Eliza won custody, but after Charity discovered that the woman had no intention of sharing Tom’s fortune, she returned to Georgia, never seeing her son again.
All this chaos had a bad effect on Tom’s state of mind, so Eliza let him go into semi-retirement. According to boarding house neighbors, Tom most certainly did not stop playing, as the piano would be heard going approximately 12 hours out of every 24. But from this point on, in the 1880s, he only appeared sporadically in public performances, while considerable income still came in from the publication of his songs.
Short tours were undertaken periodically, with Tom himself giving the master-of-ceremony speeches from memory, eerily referring to himself in the third person. It would take a detailed search of local news archives — not easily accessible at the moment, thanks to the pandemic — to see if Blind Tom ever returned to Mount Vernon.
But his later tours tended to be short, as his health was no longer able to withstand the rigors of touring. In the early 1900s, a stroke reduced Tom’s playing ability, and a further stroke in 1908 robbed him of his ability to play at all. Unsurprisingly for someone so in love with making music, he passed away soon thereafter. He is buried in Hoboken, New Jersey.
Blind Tom Wiggins was what used to be insensitively termed an “idiot savant.” Today, a more useful diagnosis might find that Wiggins was somewhere on the autism spectrum, developmentally challenged in some ways, yet astonishingly adept in others.
It was a tragedy that the first known Black composer was almost completely forgotten after his death, but it is fitting that his name is rising again these days, in the wake of recordings of his music, a biography, and even a movie.
Modern songwriters such as Elton John and Grant Lee Phillips have written songs about Blind Tom. His legend grows. Whatever his limitations, Tom Wiggins was a pioneer opening up doors into the future, and his story, fascinating and tragic, deserves to be known.
And Mount Vernon, through concert appearances and through Dan Emmett, is part of that story, too.