Thomas "Blind Tom" Wiggins (1849-1908)
African American Pianist and Composer
A Blind And Autistic Slave [Who] Was A Musical Genius
How could I have pursued a musical career in a Black musical institution such as the Jamaica School of Music and not heard of Blind Tom Wiggins!? I can’t believe that hardly anyone in the USA or the wider world has ever heard his name. Is that because his life did not matter?
A musical genius born a slave, who died as one, Wiggins was a blind piano prodigy alleged to have been the highest-paid pianist of the 19th Century. Born 1849 May 25 to Charity and Mingo (slave parents), in Harris County, GA, Tom’s parents were sold to Columbus lawyer, Gen. James Bethune; considered of little use in his blind state, Blind Tom was thrown in as part of the deal.
Wiggins’ blindness meant he could not work. By the time he turned four, however, he had developed a heightened sense of hearing and could imitate environmental as well as musical sounds. Soon, he was reproducing piano pieces and songs, even after a single hearing. Sensing that the child was gifted, Bethune nurtured his talent.
By the time he was nine, Blind Tom became an “exhibition piece” or novelty act for the Bethunes, who paraded him on stage as a kind of gifted mimic. He made up to $15,000 per performance, rendered, in essence, as “a slave-musician who fattened the pockets of his owners.” Wiggins could play his own versions of classic works by Bach, Mozart, Chopin, and Liszt in addition to reproducing other sounds on the piano. Because of his extraordinary memory, He amused his audiences by playing back their original compositions note for note. Although he also crafter his own compositions, he was labeled as “uneducated” and perhaps uneducable.
After Bethune gave the boy as a gift to his son John in 1875, the younger Bethune toured with Wiggins for the next eight years, plowing in great fortunes, little of which went to the prodigy. Wiggins became increasingly defiant as his career waned, refusing to play back church hymns. As his health began to deteriorate, he officially retired from performing in 1905 and died from a stroke three years later. None of his family ever benefited from his robust income—save for his mother once receiving the grand sum of $!5
from his manager. Summary Facts
• Born 1849 May 25, Georgia
• Blind from birth
• Thrown in as bargain at 1850 slave auction of his
parents and brothers
• First compositions before he was six
• First concert at eight (1857 October 7)
• Talent used for pro-slavery cause—$5,000 from 1864 tour given as Confederate aid
• Repertoire at age 16 included technically demanding works of Bach, Mozart, Chopin, Liszt, Beethoven, Thalberg, and other European masters
• Died penniless 1908 June 13, at age 59, of cerebral apoplexy (stroke)
• Pianist John Davis recorded first commercial CD of music composed by Blind Tom Wiggins ( John Davis Plays Blind Tom, Newport Classic 85660]
in 1999 CD Tracks
o Cyclone Galop (6:12)
o The Rainstorm (4:29)
o Sewing Song: Imitation of a Sewing Machine (7:01)
o Battle of Manassas (7:50)
o Improvisation on "When This Cruel War Is Over" (7:21)
o Wellenklänge - Voice of the Waves (6:41)
o Oliver Galop (1:12)
o Virginia Polka (3:04)
o Water in the Moonlight (3:00)
o Grand March Resurrection (4:49)
o Vivo Galop (2:06)
o Daylight (4:06)
o March Timpani (5:53)
o Reve Charmant - Nocturne (6:47)
Wiggins' repertoire spanned seven thousand piano compositions.
See more at: https://blackamericaweb.com/2020/04/20/black-history-blind-tom-wiggins/