The Tale of 'Blind Tom' Wiggins
Listen to Susanna Capeluto's report.
Play Chronicles Life of Slave Pianist Who Awed Audiences in 1800s
Listen to Thomas Wiggins songs performed by John Davis.
March 6, 2002 -- Mark Twain called him an "inspired idiot," who could
"play two tunes (on the piano) and sing a third at the same time, and let the audience choose the keys he shall perform in."
The subject of Twain's back-handed praise was Thomas Wiggins, a blind slave from Georgia known as Blind Tom who toured concert halls throughout America and Europe as a musical oddity. He also was known as Thomas Bethune, named after his owner, Gen. James Bethune.
From an early age, Wiggins seemed to crave sound. At four, Wiggins was able to reproduce music from memory after hearing it played by Bethune's children. When Wiggins was six, he began improvising on the piano and composing music.
Born in 1849, he could recite any poem and play any piece of music on the piano after hearing it only once. He earned over $100,000 a year for Bethune, who kept custody of him even after emancipation. Now Atlanta's 7 Stages Theater has produced HUSH: Composing Blind Tom Wiggins, a play about Wiggins' life, Georgia Public Radio's Susanna Capelouto reports for Morning Edition.
His life was full of contradictions. "He had a strange walk and would sway and twitch when he played the piano," Capelouto says. "He could mimic whatever he heard, even in foreign languages, but rarely expressed his own thoughts."
"Blind Tom" Wiggins performed before and after the Civil War.
Photo courtesy www.twainquotes.com
The play features a character called Tom's Fool, who takes the audience inside Wiggins' head and explains his compulsive need for sound as an overwhelming craving: "Even when his master strikes him, he is so captured by the sound of the blow that he barely flinches."
Scholars now believe Wiggins was an autistic savant -- much like Dustin Hoffman's character in the film Rain Man. That term wasn't around in the 19th century, when few people questioned whether Wiggins was exploited.
HUSH director Del Hamilton says he wanted to look beyond the hype that audiences at the time responded to. "Between his blindness and autism and the fact that he was a slave and advertised like a freak and an oddity and toured around in this P.T. Barnum-like show, one of the difficulties was trying to make sure that we were accurate and not over the top," Hamilton says.
After the Civil War, Wiggins' parents were pressured to give custody of Tom to the Bethune family. Years later, after two court battles, Tom was returned to his mother, who was unable to care for him. He ended up living in New York with Bethune's estranged daughter-in-law. As time went on, he refused to play the piano because he wanted to be back at his old master's house.
As his character in the play says, "Tom wants to sit in master's parlor. I want to sit quiet and listen just like he taught me. Then I will play my piano for me, just for me."
When Wiggins died in 1908, his obituary in The New York Times referred to him as a "freak pianist" who played "with a conception of music that was as great as his skill. His technique came as naturally as did his musical emotions."
Pianist John Davis helped revive Wiggins' story by recording his music in a 1999 CD, John Davis Plays Blind Tom. "He left these pieces of music that are beautifully written, pieces of a certain style, and that, to me, is ultimately going to be his legacy," Davis says.
HUSH ends its run at the 7 Stages Theater in Atlanta on Sunday and is then set for a tour of the Southeast.
"Blind Tom" Wiggins biography.
An 1869 Mark Twain article on Wiggins (scroll down to middle of page).
A New York Times article about Wiggins.
An article about pianist John Davis, who revived Wiggins' music and recorded it in 1999.
HUSH: Composing "Blind Tom" Wiggins, the play.