ALS, 4 pp., 6.5 x 8 in., "Augusta Female Seminary," December 13, 1860. Student Harriet E. McGuffin (1846-1937) writes to her sister Mary McGuffin describing a performance by musical prodigy Thomas "Blind Tom" Wiggins.
Writing from Augusta Female Seminary (now Mary Baldwin University) in Staunton, Virginia, fourteen-year old Harriet "Hattie" McGuffin relays with exceptional detail a performance she attended featuring the famed nineteenth-century musician known as "Blind Tom." She begins, "I went Saturday evening to see 'bind Tom' preform [sic] he is a blind negro boy 10 years old. He is from North Carolina his master is Mr. Oliver...." Though he did in fact exert enormous control over Tom, Mr. Perry Oliver was not Tom's "master" but rather a concert promoter hired by James Neil Bethune, the plantation owner who purchased Tom and his family as a young child. Oliver toured extensively with Tom, earning himself and Bethune enormous sums of money in the process. Despite his incredible talent, Tom was viewed as an object of freakish wonder, still subhuman, as an object for display. McGuffin demonstrates this sentiment noting that "Mr. Oliver has been exhibiting him in every part of the United States...."
McGuffin continues her letter describing for her sister how Tom's talent came to be known by the family. She then describes how Tom sings in different languages, repeats poetry, and can say the "Lord's Prayer" in Latin. She describes how he can play "Fishers hornpipe with one hand Yankee Doodle with the other and carry on a conversation with his master at the same time & not make a single mistake." Tom was well-known for this type of feat, as well as others she describes at the performance such as mimicking the sound of a specific instrument or the sounds of rail cars starting out from the station. She describes how audience members could go upon the stage to play a long and difficult piece which Tom then could replay note for note. Full of wonder, McGuffin ends her report on the performance saying "these things I have just told you about are all true for I saw them all with my own eyes." Manuscript first-hand accounts of Blind Tom's first years of performance are exceedingly scarce.
The story of Thomas “Blind Tom” Wiggins (1849-1908) is one of beauty and tragedy intertwined. He is described by many today as an autistic savant and was presumed to be mentally deficient in his lifetime, described by many contemporaries as nothing more than a human parrot. Such discussions often overshadow his artistic achievement. He demonstrated a preternatural skill in playing the piano, was able to memorize long passages both music and speech, and possessed an uncanny ability to recreate almost any sound he heard. Belying his supposed “idiocy,” he wrote and published music and continuously toured throughout the United States, including the western frontier, as well as internationally most of his life.
Born into slavery in Georgia, he was purchased as a young child with his parents by James Neil Bethune (1803-1895). Blind at birth, Tom’s musical talent was recognized early and Bethune leased Tom to a Barnum-style spectacle producer at the tender age of 8. He performed as often as four times a day earning his enslaver over $100,000 a year. In 1860, he visited Congress and played for President James Buchanan, possibly the first featured performance by an African American at the White House. He almost certainly earned more than any other pianist of the day, though it is the tragic reality that his earnings went to neither him nor his family.
Despite the outcome of the Civil War, Tom by any practical measure never seems to have gained his own freedom. Declared non compos mentis, General Bethune applied for Tom’s guardianship and continued to exploit his labor. In 1875, Bethune transferred management of Tom to his son John. After John’s death, Tom was at the center of a fierce custody battle. In the proceedings, he is often written about as though he was property, rather than a person. Even in 1895, when Bethune was on his deathbed, the New York Times headline read, “The Owner of ‘Blind Tom’ Ill.”
Musically, he is best remembered for composing The Battle of Manassas (1861 or 1862) which poignantly represents the complicated life of Blind Tom. The piece memorializes the First Battle of Bull Run (known by Confederates as the First Battle of Manassas), the first major battle of the Civil War and a decisive victory for the South. It was met with critical acclaim by white audiences and newspapers, and possibly used to raise money for the Confederate cause. Black voices are silent, with African American newspapers having distanced themselves from Tom, believing that white slaveowners used Tom to perpetuate stereotypes and line their own pockets. The piece itself, described as a tone poem, demonstrates Tom’s remarkable capability of capturing the atmosphere of a scene, recreating the sounds of the battlefield. Notably, it is one of the first examples of tone clusters, used to represent cannon fire. The piece was played continuously at nearly every concert until his death in 1908.
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