Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Discovering "Blind Tom," The Slave Turned Civil War-Era Pop Star

By Jeffery Renard Allen, 9-10-14

Several years ago I encountered the story of Thomas Greene Wiggins in the pages of Oliver Sacks’ wonderful study of unusual neurological case studies, An Anthropologist on Mars. Born a slave in Georgia in 1849, Wiggins was one of the first African-American classical performers and composers, a well-known and widely celebrated cultural phenomenon from 1858 when he first began giving stage recitals on the piano, through the 1870s and 1880s when his popularity waned. Under the stage name “Blind Tom,” he gave mind-blowing “exhibitions” where he performed interpretations of pieces by venerated composers such as Mozart, Bach, Chopin, and Liszt, while also engaging in far less conventional musical spectacle. He conjured up imitations on his piano of natural and man-made phenomena such as rainstorms and sewing machines, playing and singing three songs at once in different keys, and inviting members of the audience to test his powers of memory with their own original compositions, newly heard tunes that he would reproduce note for note before venturing off on his own variations and improvisations.

I was especially struck by Sacks’ description of Wiggins’ stage performances, his “exhibition,” as the showmanship, imitations, and other tricks seemed so far ahead of their time, deserving comparison to 20th-century performers like Roland Kirk and Jimi Hendrix, among others. I decided to find out all I could about this forgotten musical pioneer. A good year after reading Sacks, I was lucky enough to be rewarded with a fellowship to the Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers where I could begin to research Wiggins in earnest, having by then decided to use Wiggins as the basis of a novel, which carried the simple working title Tom. (Well, initially I thought Wiggins would be a principal character in a novel with three independent story lines like some of Faulkner’s novels or Caryl Phillips’ The Nature of Blood. Then another fellow at the center told me, “Cut the pretense. Just write about Blind Tom.” It took two years of starts and stops to figure out that she was right.)

A contemporary of fellow virtuosos such as Liszt and Rubinstein, Wiggins was by some accounts the highest-paid pianist of the 19th century, earning more than $100,000 annually during the period of his greatest popularity. In 1860, he performed for President James Buchanan at the White House. At the start of the Civil War, he was such a draw and respected figure that President Abraham Lincoln gave serious consideration to the idea of enlisting him in the service of the Union. And other noted contemporaries had much to say about him. Mark Twain speculated that Wiggins was a kind of “angel” who derived his musical abilities from supernatural forces. Praising the military strategies of Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, Ulysses S. Grant remarked, “Forrest fights the way Blind Tom touches the keys.” Willa Cather reviewed a Blind Tom recital for her college newspaper and was so impressed by his playing that she called him a “human music box.” She would go on to model the character of Blind D’Arnault after Wiggins in her celebrated novel My Antonia. Wiggins remained a public figure even after his retirement from stage, the constant subject of rumor and speculation about his fate and whereabouts. His “death” often made the headlines, with reports of him having been struck down by some affliction or claimed by a catastrophe.

But these were only the historical facts about a performer named “Blind Tom.” Who was the actual person, Thomas Greene Wiggins? This person is far harder to know and understand because the reputed firsthand reports about him are informed by the racial prejudices of the time. Added to this, Wiggins himself had remained largely silent during his life. He gave no interviews. He dictated no letters, essays, or narratives. This silence cost him. His owner and manager arranged for him to give concerts with proceeds going to the Confederacy. Because he either could not or would not speak on his own behalf, a Cincinnati court ruled not long after the close of the Civil War that he was incapable of managing his own affairs and so appointed his “owner,” Gen. Thomas Neil Bethune, a newspaper publisher and propagandist for secession, as his legal guardian. Two decades later, when Wiggins was in his late twenties, Bethune’s daughter-in-law sued for and was awarded custody of him.

How to explain Wiggins’ silence? Was he so completely unaware of his place in the world and incapable of understanding his plight that he had no reason to speak? One writer opines such, suggesting that Wiggins was fortunate because his blindness and mental incapacities saved him from knowing that he was either a Negro or a slave.

Such assumptions about Wiggins’ mental capacities have raised doubts about his musical abilities and deemed him unworthy of serious study by experts in the field. And during those rare instances where music historians choose to write about him, they do so only to hold him up for ridicule and quick dismissal as a serious artist. In his important survey The Great Pianists: From Mozart to the Present, Harold C. Schonberg speaks highly of some of Wiggins’ American contemporaries, calling them “fine and sincere musicians [who] quietly started to raise the standards of piano playing, and of music making in general.” But when he gets to Wiggins, Schoenberg engages in snide and vicious musical scapegoating: “[T]here was one celebrity who for a while attracted more attention than all of them put together—the curious and pathetic Blind Tom.” For Schoenberg, Wiggins was a “mental defective” who “could not do a fiftieth of the things credited to him. As a matter of fact, he could not do anything except play back a few tunes he knew.”

Of course, a “mental defective” would be of interest primarily to medical professionals like Oliver Sacks who specialize in studies of the brain. Sacks views Tom as one of a hundred or so “documented” savants, noting that savants “do not seem to develop as normal talents do. They are fully-fledged from the start. Savant talents, further, have a more autonomous, even automatic quality than normal ones. They do not seem to occupy the mind or attention fully and do not seem to connect, as normal talents do, to the rest of the person. All this is strongly suggestive of a neural mechanism different from that which underlies normal talents.” What this all means ultimately for Sacks is that savants are incapable of imagination and creativity. “Creativity has to do with inner life—with the flow of ideas and strong feelings. Creativity, in this sense, was probably never possible for Blind Tom.”

In deeming Wiggins an abnormal talent, Sacks is not all that far from those 19th-century observers who thought “Blind Tom” was under the control of supernatural forces, “either God or the Devil,” a notion that gave many white people who attended Wiggins’ concerts a palatable explanation for why a black person could play the piano, an instrument requiring skill and refinement, qualities that they believed black people did not possess, proof found in the black person’s penchant for the common “Negro” instruments of violin, drums, and banjo. And the whites in the audience believed that it was these same supernatural forces that enabled Wiggins to play the piano far better than any of them would ever be able to play their parlor piano forte. (Every good middle-class home had one.) Indeed, the supernatural justification was an idea of such lasting credibility that magician Harry Houdini chose to debunk it in his 1924 diatribe titled Houidini: A Magician Among the Spirits as part of his ongoing effort to reveal natural causes for paranormal claims. Wiggins’ ability to reproduce unfamiliar compositions note for note is for Houidini nothing more than an incredible feat of memory. In the end, what interests Houidini is not Blind Tom the musician, but Blind Tom the magician, the charlatan, a creator of musical illusion as opposed to music itself.

With the exception of Eileen Southern’s seminal 1971 study The Music of Black Americans: A History, African-American scholars by and large have shown little interest in Wiggins given their focus on folk idioms like the spirituals, ragtime, and the blues. (Of course, Wiggins’ apparent support of the Confederacy hardly makes him a suitable candidate for celebration and canonization, however much one sympathizes with him as a victim of white racism.) Amiri Baraka is the only noted black writer who has tried to evaluate the compass and range of Wiggins’ talent, using a 1999 recording by John Davis, a white pianist and collector of Blind Tom memorabilia based in Brooklyn, who travels the country giving recitals of Wiggins’ compositions, as the basis for his judgments. In his linear notes to the CD John Davis Plays Blind Tom, Baraka writes, “Listening to Wiggins’ compositions dispels immediately the canard that he is merely imitating. Though the pieces he played reflect the Romantic European concert ‘classics’ of the period, the careful balance of the form, the delicacy and lyric grace of even the most impressionistic passages, the skillful use of arpeggio, crescendo, the movement of the work from the lightest piano to roaring forte, mark Wiggins’ compositions as the thoughtful musings and deliberate organization of sound that can only reflect a humanity and creativity ironically much more developed than the Yahoos who unquestioningly accepted his characterization as ‘less than human.’”

The scholar who has single-handedly done the most to give Wiggins his rightful place in musical history as both a recitalist and composer is the late Geneva Southall, an African-American pianist and musicologist who taught at the University of Minnesota. Southall devoted her academic career to unearthing every scrap of information she could about Wiggins, research that she compiled into a three-volume biography published between 1979 and 1999. It is Southall’s contention that Tom’s owner, Gen. Bethune, and his manager, Perry Oliver, conspired to create the character of Blind Tom the “idiot savant” as a gimmick to draw people to his concerts. Oliver went so far as to engineer the publication of a promotional biography, which depicted Blind Tom as a “natural genius” who had never received any musical instruction and who never needed to study or practice. In painstaking detail, Southall brings to light the true facts about Wiggins the musician. He had extensive musical training in European classical tradition throughout his career, starting with his mistress Mrs. Bethune, a piano teacher. He practiced daily. As well, this supposedly natural and untutored “genius” received endorsements from respected musicians and music instructors. Likewise those who reviewed him in the press were astounded by his performances, notwithstanding the occasional negative review. Wiggins’ ability to reproduce unfamiliar songs on stage went hand in hand with a musical memory encompassing more than seven thousand compositions, an astonishing number far surpassing any other performer in recorded history, including Mozart, who is reported to have had a memory of 5,000 compositions.

To show that Wiggins was more than a mere imitator, Southall points out that he penned hundreds of compositions, several of which were best-sellers. Such is the neglect that these compositions have never been collected, let alone interpreted by others on stage or in recording, with the noted exceptions of Davis and Southall. Southall gave numerous recitals featuring the material and she was first in recording some of them, a recording which has never found general release to the public and is only available on a single tape housed at the University of Minnesota library.

Despite the excellent musicology and unearthing of facts, Southall’s biographies left me no closer in understanding Wiggins the man. This person remained silent to me. How would I tell his story? How would I represent his consciousness, the mode and manner of his thinking? What would he sound like when he spoke? With so much undecided, for the longest time I avoided listening to the Davis and Southall recordings because I feared that their interpretations would too heavily shape the sound of Wiggins’ music I was attempting to construct in my head and on paper. Then too, I had no way of gauging the accuracy of the compositions themselves since parties other than Wiggins had transcribed them. When I finally decided to have a listen, I found the recordings unremarkable and uninteresting. Wiggins’ compositions show the influence of the great European classical composers on the one hand, and on the other those sentimental motifs and conventions that defined American instrumental music at the time. Based on this small sheath of compositions, one would be hard put to make the case for Wiggins as a great composer.

But the listening did make one thing clear. The nature of Wiggins’ genius, the range of his creativity and imagination, was expressed in performance, not in composition. Blind Tom the artist, the maker, found his métier on stage. In the same way that Wiggins’ voice and thoughts were denied to me, ultimately his music was denied, the virtuosity and vitality of his performing self, because all I had about these performances were the words of others.

As I see it, on stage Wiggins was fully in line with the changing same of African-American musical expression although he never played “black” music. Black people in America have always taken “European” instruments and made them “sing.” Conversely, we make our voices sound like instruments, machines, and phenomenon from the natural world through the use of grunts, hollers, chants, and moans. And in dance the black body does things bodies are not supposed to be capable of. Little wonder that Wiggins would whirl on the stage, that Monk would do his weird steps at the piano. Perhaps it is not hyperbole when James Monroe Trotter states in his 1881 study Music and Some Highly Musical People that Wiggins was “unquestionably and conspicuously the most wonderful musician the world has ever known.” Here was a blind black slave who could play anything and do anything on stage, who could demonstrate the “infinite plasticity” that Stanley Crouch wisely says characterizes African-American music. Wiggins took the format of the recital and pulled it every which way, making it part dance, oratory, song, all the while playing the piano against the classical grain and making it sound like something other than a piano and making it do what no piano is supposed to do.

One no doubt has to be aware of the historical and cultural particulars that in part made Wiggins who he was as musician and performer, but one can also see him as an artist ahead of his times, a shortcut to modernity tragically trapped in an almost feudal era that had yet to invent an idiom that could allow for the full expression of his genius. Wiggins points ahead not only to great pianists like Art Tatum — interestingly enough, Tatum was born in 1909, one year after Wiggins died — and Oscar Peterson, but also to many other great African-American instrumentalists of the 20th century who would make lasting contributions to musical art by refusing to rigidly categorize their practice, and who would instead, as Miles Davis famously put it, “Play what the day recommends.” That is, Wiggins’ approach to singing and the piano was syncretic, a combining of modes and traditions, a moving beyond what’s there rather than a staying within accepted and set forms and genres. The rigid categories of ethnic and cultural specificity which so often define music — conventional versus experimental, religious versus secular, popular versus art, classical versus jazz, European versus African-American, etc. — reflect the rigid and arbitrary categories that so often categorize people according to pseudo-biological notions of race, especially in the 19th century.

Could it be that Wiggins’ blindness did indeed afford him a barrier from racism since his inability to see color, to see skin, saved him from buying into the false notions and prescriptions of race? On this level at least biology worked in his favor. White people were invisible to him. He had no reason to believe what they said about him, and he had no reason to speak to them or explain himself.
Where nature and fate withheld sight from him, Wiggins himself made the decision to hold his own tongue, to remain silent. Interesting that the few statements attributed to him come in the form of refusals. He turned down requests for hymns by saying, “Tom doesn’t play church music.” On one occasion, his manager took him out to the street to have his shoes blacked by a band of African-American boys, only for Wiggins to walk away, saying, “Tom won’t have his shoes blacked by no niggers.” The greatest refusal of all came in the form of a self-imposed retirement from public performance after he had been giving recitals for more than two decades. Wiggins simply refused to go on stage to play. During his retirement, journalists would come knocking at his residence with inquiries about “Blind Tom.” Wiggins would respond, “Blind Tom doesn’t live here.”

However they appear on the surface these refusals are rife with ambiguity. Wiggins’ unwillingness to play “church music” might be read as a rejection of Christianity hypocrisy and sanctimoniousness. Perhaps he refused to have his shoes blacked by “niggers” in a show of solidarity with fellow African-Americans who were also under the thumbs and boots of white people. He stopped giving concerts because he would no longer allow white people to profit from his body. And during his retirement he refused to recognize and answer to the name “Blind Tom” as this name represented a character that white people had constructed for their own enrichment and comfort.

His protest took the form of these low-keyed refusals. And they took the form of silence. Cut off from his parents and siblings, and dependent on white people for his daily survival, silence was the only means of agency available to him. In place of words he let his hands and feet do the talking and used his voice as an instrument, leaving white people to read these displays of physical and vocal dexterity any way they wanted. He did not seek their recognition or acceptance or praise. What he gave them for a time was performance, a making in the moment that they could not categorize or control. What he refused to give them was the self behind the act.

Wiggins returned to the stage in 1903 during the well-paying vaudeville era. His health quickly declined, his physical woes forcing him into complete retirement in 1905. He died in New York City three years later, in 1908, the same year that the vociferous Jack Johnson became the first black heavyweight, boxing champion of the world. (Wiggins died in June, Johnson won the championship in December.) Johnson’s victory signaled the start of the New Negro era, a political and cultural movement that would reach its peak in the 1920s with the Harlem Renaissance.

Where Johnson had fists (and defiant words and transgressive ways, habits of being) to fight the white world, Wiggins had only himself, a self he could withhold from the public, a mouth that would not speak, a tongue that refused to tell. In the end, Wiggins does not give himself up to any medical professional, biographer, or novelist for that matter. In his refusal to speak, “Blind Tom” remains beyond the purview of all who seek to tell or claim his story.
Jeffery Renard Allen is the author of two collections of poetry, Stellar Places (Moyer Bell 2007) and Harbors and Spirits (Moyer Bell 1999); a story collection, Holding Pattern (Graywolf, 2008); and the widely celebrated novel Rails Under My Back (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000), which won the Chicago Tribune’s Heartland Prize for Fiction. His latest novel, Song of the Shank, is in stores now.



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