Day 438: The Last American Slave – Blind Tom Wiggins

originally published March 13, 2013

Ask anyone connected with the music world, and they’ll probably tell you that the industry is more full of dicks than an all-male adult film parody like The Wangover Part II or One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Gay Sex-Den. This has been the case since the first schlub was willing to fork over a bear pelt to hear some guy bang rhythmically on rocks. And the odds that such dickery can be found in the antebellum South are pretty darn good.

If Blind Tom Wiggins were to be born in the modern era, he’d probably become a Youtube celebrity, then end up on some network reality series in which twelve women compete for the opportunity to have sex with him. Not a glamorous existence, but it’d be a notch-kick up from the life he had.

Blind Tom was born a musical visionary, and also an autistic savant. And thanks to an unlucky cartwheel of the geographic dice, he was also born a slave.

Tom Wiggins was born to parents Charity and Mingo Wiggins in 1849 Georgia. Within his first year, his family was sold to General James Neil Bethune, a prominent Columbus lawyer and the first newspaper editor in the south to push for secession. Tom was blind, and thus was spared being subjected to chores as a young child. Instead, he was free to roam around the plantation. His favorite place to roam was into the Bethune home, where his fingers could tickle the Bethune piano into making sweet music.

This was how Tom came to find his voice. He struggled to put words to his own needs, leaning instead on grunts and wild gestures. But when it came to parroting the world around him, Tom had a gift. He could echo the bird calls and rooster squawks he heard, and he could also repeat entire conversations that went on around him, up to ten minutes in length. He could do this at four years of age.

He’d have made a great witness; it’s probably good he didn’t grow up in a mafia family. Tom would have been seen as a liability.

(do you swear to tell the whole truth… how much time have you got?)

As Tom continued to slip into the Bethune residence to play the piano (with help from Bethune’s daughters, who enjoyed the free entertainment), he became quite good at it. General Bethune heard him, and allowed Tom to move into a room attached to the family home. Bethune would bring in professional musicians, then marvel at how Tom could reproduce their performances, often after only one listen. A neighbor recalled how he used to hear Tom practice as much as twelve hours a day. I can’t even find twenty minutes to exercise; Tom was one devoted player.

Now, General Bethune may have been an ignorant, backwards man who felt owning other humans was acceptable, but he was not stupid. He knew Tom’s talent was marketable, downright exploitable even, and he was just the guy to do it. Tom was sent out on the road.

Audience response was fantastic – Blind Tom Wiggins was a hit. By the age of eight, Tom was sent on a tour of the south, accompanied either by General Bethune or Perry Oliver, a concert promoter. Tom would play as many as four shows a day, earning an unfathomable $100,000 a year. That’s the equivalent of making over $1.5 million of today’s dollars, and that’s without corporate tie-ins, cross-promotion, synergy marketing, mp3 downloads, T-shirts, hats, or licensed tattoo stencils. Blind Tom Wiggins – who at this time was still very much the property of General Bethune – was a star.

(“I also own this chair”)

In 1860, Blind Tom became the first black man to give a command performance at the White House, playing for President James Buchanan. But I should point out, Tom was not being marketed as a musical genius. Perry Oliver was promoting him as a P.T. Barnum-style circus sideshow freak: “From Animal To Artist”. He was compared to a baboon, a mastiff or a bear – people were meant to marvel not at his incomparable skill, but at the fact that he was such a successfully tamed savage. Remember how I said the music business was full of dicks?

On stage, there was no denying the explosion of talent inside Blind Tom’s portly frame. One soldier reported seeing Tom play three pieces of music at once: “Fisher’s Hornpipe” with one hand, “Yankee Doodle” with the other, all while singing “Dixie.” Mark Twain was a fan. In fact, I’d suspect anyone who was lucky enough to see him play was probably a fan.

People tried to challenge Tom. They’d play brand new compositions of their own, then sit back and watch him echo what he’d just heard. His popularity might have been even more widespread, but a white man touring with his talented slave wasn’t going to fill a lot of dance halls in the north, especially as the nation fell into the Civil War. After the war, John Bethune, the general’s son, took over “management” of Tom’s career.

John Bethune married his landlady, Eliza, who promptly filed for divorce when John took off right after the wedding to tour with Tom. John died a couple years later, and a custody battle ensued.

To be clear, Tom was never an official ward of the state in anyone’s care – he had simply never been relieved of the burden of being someone’s property. General Bethune wanted Tom back, and Eliza (who had Charity Wiggins, Tom’s mother, on her side) fought for him as well.

The courts awarded Tom to Eliza in 1887, who moved him back up to New York. Charity came along as well, but it was clear that Eliza was not going to honor her promise to share any of Tom’s earnings with her. Charity was shuffled out of the picture, leaving her son and heading back to the deep south.

There was a rumor that Tom perished in the Jamestown Flood in western Pennsylvania in 1889, and that the Blind Tom Wiggins who performed after that point was a replacement. Sort of a Paul-is-dead fiasco, some eighty years before the fact. Tom (or whoever) continued to perform until a stroke sidelined him in 1904. He passed away in 1908.

It’s believed that Blind Tom Wiggins taught himself over 7000 pieces of music, from classical to popular songs, from hymns to whatever got people dancing. Just how much his wards (or ‘owners’, I suppose) looked out for his welfare, I have no idea. They clearly made a lot of money off his talent for doing surprisingly little.

But isn’t that how the music business still works?

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