02/27/01
"Blind Tom"
    by John Cech

You're hearing a little from a recent and the first recording of a piano composition called the "Oliver Galop" that was written in 1861 by Thomas Wiggins when he was about twelve years old. Wiggins was one of the most celebrated African American musicians of the 19th century. He was born in Columbus, Georgia, in 1849 to Mingo and Charity Wiggins -- who had been sold into slavery to the family of General James Neil Bethune, a fervent anti-abolitionist. Wiggins was blind from birth, but he had an extraordinary gift for being able to duplicate any music that he heard onthe piano, a talent that announced itself at the age of four when he began playing the piano in the Bethune's parlor, much to the amazement of everyone in the house.

Tom was then given lessons, and by the time he was eight, General Bethune was touring him in concerts around the state. In 1859, when he was ten, Bethune leased Tom (for $15,000) to an impresario named Perry Oliver, who gave him the stage name "Blind Tom" and turned him into a sensation and a curiosity. Tom could play songs after one hearing, play one song with his hands behind his back, while singing a different song; he could even sing one song and play two others, one with each hand -- simultaneously. He could imitate perfectly any sound he heard, from a sewing machine to political oratory to foreign languages. He played at the White House when he was eleven and had a concert career here and in Europe well into the 1880s. At his peak, he was earning $100,000 a year for the Bethunes and others, for performances and the popular sheet music for his orignal compositions. He was the subject of numerous custody battles after the Civil War, until finally he withdrew from public life for the last twenty years of his life before his death in 1908. Houdini claimed that Tom gained his powers from the spirit world; a French physician called him an "Idiot Savant." But there are many who belive he was simply gifted in ways that no one at the time or even now can comprehend, and that music was the avenue he found, from childhood on, to tell us what was in his soul.

Copyright 2001 by John Cech

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Wednesday, 09-Apr-2003 23:13:14 EDT


"Recess!" is a co-production of the University of Florida's Center for the Study of Children's Literature and Media and WUFT-FM, "Classic 89."