Jeffrey Green

Jeffrey is a historian
based south of London

167 : ‘Blind Tom’ the musical phenomenon in Britain 1866-1867

Thomas Wiggins was sometimes known as Thomas Bethune, but generally known as Blind Tom. An African American born into slavery in Columbus, Georgia in May 1849, he was blind from birth. He and his parents were purchased by James Neil Bethune, a businessman in Columbus, Georgia. The four Bethune daughters played several musical instruments and sang. Blind Tom was attracted to the piano. When Tom played the piano – although documentation and comments have their own problems – it was clear that the black lad had a talent. He could reproduce new tunes and pieces within minutes of hearing them for the very first time.

He became an attraction in theatres and gave recitals, had his compositions noted, published, and performed them in concert halls. His fame has led to biographies and articles, a three volume collection of his works, and the marking of his grave. What of his international fame? It is far from rare for claims to be made about African Americans and their successful appearances before European royalty, usually Queen Victoria. As Tom toured England in 1866-1867 this article is aimed at documenting that. Biographer Deidre O’Connell (The Ballad of Blind Tom, New York, 2009) wrote ‘I am stumped as to the identity of these alleged monarchs’. An investigation of British newspapers 1866-1867 shows no royal engagements – but wide-ranging and appreciative audiences, and also far-from sympathetic commentators.

Now we know about autism, and more about what makes a child prodigy, we can be scornful of those who just observed Tom stumbling, talking gibberish, and behaving in idiotic ways. The Brighton Gazette commented that Tom was ‘not only sight less but also completely idiotic’ (25 July 1867). But after he played in Brighton the Gazette commented ‘It is stated that Blind Tom is an idiot, but his performance would denote him to be anything but that’ (1 August 1867).Blind Tom

His first British appearance was at the Queen’s Concert Rooms in Hanover Square, London in July 1866. He then was based at the Egyptian Hall in London. The Evening Standard (30 July 1866, p 6) referred to him as ‘this poor, half-demented lad’. The provincial press reported events in the metropolis and the ‘London Letter’ in the Hereford Journal of 28 July 1866 (page 3) wrote: ‘The last new thing here is a musical idiot. He is black, blind, a fool, and a musician; and his name is “Blind Tom”. He possesses – or rather his friends profess for him – that he is able to imitate on the piano any tune after a first hearing’. The cynical journalist asked ‘how are we to know he had never heard them before?’

That was resolved by local performers and composers presenting their works – including discords and weird harmonies – to the blind youngster. By mid-August 1866 the Morning Post, reporting on his scheduled London appearances at St James’s Hall before embarking on a tour of the provinces, noted ‘he possesses to a marvellous extent the facility of playing “by ear”’. He had ‘an elastic touch, and plays with much expression. He has not only a good memory, he has something of the imagination which no executive or test of true merit can be without’. That he applauded himself at the end of each piece ‘smacks quite as much of contempt for his audience as of personal vanity’.

For the Dundee Courier (5 December 1866, p 3) Tom was ‘of almost imbecile mind’ but was ‘without a parallel’ as a musical curiosity, advising ‘those going expecting to see an astonishing musical prodigy will be in no way disappointed’. Indeed, the Dundee Advertiser (6 December) warned that audiences should not suppose ‘his notoriety is another species of Barnumism’ (showman Barnum was famed for hoaxing audiences). It was clear that ‘his ability would be marvellous even if he had his eyesight’. The show-business weekly Era (14 April 1867, p 10) noted he was at St James’s Hall in London and that he was ‘really and truly a wonder’, and ‘superhuman’. He was due to visit Paris.

Tom toured Scotland, Manchester, Birmingham – and went to Paris in April 1867 (the South London Chronicle of 27 April 1867, page 6 noted this) – and also Newcastle, Bradford, Leeds, Dover, Derby, Accrington, Huddersfield and Sheffield, leaving for America in June 1867. In Montrose (Scotland) he was described as the ‘inexplicable phenomenon’ (November 1866); in Manchester ‘the entertainment was most interesting as well as unique’ (September 1866); in Birmingham where he performed six evenings at the Exchange Assembly Rooms in September 1866 he was ‘the musical prodigy’. He was advertised in Edinburgh as ‘Blind Tom’s Concerts and Entertainment Scientific and Humorous’ (Edinburgh Evening Courant, 24 December 1866, p 1). Charles Halle, the well-respected director of concerts in Manchester, wrote that Tom was ‘quite marvellous’, ‘most remarkable’, and was a ‘most singular and inexplicable phenomenon’ (the Orchestra quoted in the Hereford Journal, 13 October 1866, p 7).

He copied new music and tunes, he played with his back to the keyboard, he played two different tunes at once and sang a third, he impersonated people. Showman, oddity, entertainer and pianist – and as a black person, tied by contract and American tradition to white bosses. They benefited from the substantial receipts. The Birmingham Daily Press noted that Tom was ‘professedly of defective intellect and sight, and obviously of uncouth manners …he is obviously no fool’ and as a pianist ‘Tom is distinguished rather for vigour than delicacy’. The reviewer (18 September 1866, p 4) thought that musical people would be outnumbered by ‘sight-seers and marvel-hunters’. Tom’s activities were reported in Ireland and the Dublin Evening Mail (13 December 1866, p 4) copied the Scotsman: ‘Any one to look at Blind Tom would never imagine he possessed such wonderful powers’.

Thomas Wiggins is known to have played the piano for hours on end. His sightless world was made of sounds, and his compositions often resulted from attempts to reproduce, at the piano, the sound of rain, wind, and bird song. In his early years as a professional entertainer he sounded like other amateur, often-young women pianists – including the Bethune sisters – but his manager(s) had professional instrumentalists train him. They were obviously unwilling to inform the public that he was trained. Some of the British commentators thought his technique and musicality would benefit from such tutors. Perhaps we are seeing a race-based, theatrical exploitation in the USA and, whilst still exploiting his physical handicaps and appearance, some British views of an interesting musician in his own right. The published reports seem to be based on publicity hand-outs, but there was that distinction between the facility to play ‘by ear’ (and the question of how the audience could be sure the ‘new’ music had never been heard before), and his physical skills as a pianist. British commentators had little time to assess him and so we seem to have no knowledge of what contemporaries thought of his musicianship. In other words, was his playing good because he was blind? How did his renditions compare to those of sighted instrumentalists?

Tom’s act fell out of fashion in America where his activities were curtailed by law suits against those who were his managers/exploiters; but in the 1900s he performed on the variety stage, in shows and theatres that otherwise avoided black acts.

He died in New Jersey in 1908. Tom has two graves – one in Brooklyn, and the other in Columbus, Georgia. The Brooklyn grave was marked in 2002, that in Columbus in 1976.