Tom Wiggins (1849-1908)
Tom Wiggins, later known simply as Blind Tom, was born into slavery and sold with his parents to General James Neil Bethune, a lawyer and newspaper editor in Columbus Georgia. His blindness restricted him from the jobs that would normally be given to an enslaved child, so he was reportedly left to play and explore in the Bethune house. It was at this time that his interest in music was discovered, perhaps by General Bethune’s daughters. He was considered a musical prodigy on the piano, and by age five had composed “The Rain Storm” as a partial interpretation of the sound of rain on the roof. He was an excellent mimic and could recreate entire conversations and sounds. Scholars who have studied Wiggins have suggested that his reported behavior and abilities could have been indicators of autism, and that, should he have been living after autism was described, he would have been considered an autistic savant (“Blind Tom Wiggins,” n.d.).
General Bethune contracted Wiggins to a talent manager who took him on tours all over the south, prior, during, and after the Civil War. Hostilities between North and South kept Wiggins from touring in the North. His performances were often seen to benefit the Confederacy in a way that would lead his contemporaries to criticize his shows as reinforcing negative stereotypes. However, his musical feats remained front and center in articles about him and his scheduled engagements. A soldier in North Carolina described some of Tom's eccentric capabilities:
"One of his most remarkable feats was the performance of three pieces of music at once. He played 'Fisher's Hornpipe' with one hand and 'Yankee Doodle' with the other and sang 'Dixie' all at once. He also played a piece with his back to the piano and his hands inverted." (“Blind Tom Wiggins,” n.d.)
Though often advertised as unstudied, Wiggins did have a series of tutors who helped him develop his own musical style. Musical scholars could not deny Tom Wiggins’ extensive skill and insight in music: “Any doubt of Tom’s musical genius is swept away upon examination of the content of his individual compositions” (Grimsley, 2006). His performances would also include playing other instruments, singing, giving recitations in multiple languages, and imitations of political oration (Smith, 2016). Tom would also begin to introduce himself in imitation of the managers who had introduced him in the past. Willa Cather attended such a performance and remarked:
"It was a strange sight to see him walk out on stage with his own lips—another man's words—introduce himself and talk quietly about his own idiocy. There was insanity, a grotesque horribleness about it that was interestingly unpleasant. One laughs at the man's queer actions, and yet, after all, the sight is not laughable. It brings us too near to the things that we sane people do not like to think of." (“Blind Tom Wiggins,” n.d.)
Wiggins was a minor at the end of the Civil War and General Bethune snatched his opportunity to retain a lucrative and popular charge after emancipation by convincing Wiggins’ parents to sign over control of Wiggins’ career for five years. After this initial contract, when Wiggins was of legal age, he would be retained by the Bethune family, or associates thereof, through more conventional business contracts that surrendered the majority of the money he earned and control over his own life to his employers. During his career, multiple custody battles for Tom Wiggins made the news, but Wiggins remained connected to the Bethune family (“Bethune, Thomas Greene Wiggins (“Blind Tom”),” 1999) until his retirement. Wiggins’ legal status and custody issues would lead his biographer, Geneva H. Southall to title her work: Blind Tom, The Black Pianist-Composer: Continually Enslaved.
Tom Wiggins in the news:
Songs in the USF Libraries digital African American Sheet Music Collection: