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The Ballad of Blind Tom, Slave Pianist

O'Connell Deirdre

America's Lost Musical Genius

(Penguin)

This book tells the story of a figure who is all but forgotten today, but who achieved great success in his own lifetime. Blind Tom was born a slave in Georgia in 1849, and this already undesirable condition was compounded by the fact that he was blind from birth. But he was more fortunate than many who were born into slavery but unable to carry out the work of slaves: blind or handicapped babies were often abandoned and left to die, or even killed. While Tom’s master was not sympathetic, he was not this cruel, and instead sold Tom and both of his parents. They were lucky enough not to be separated; they were purchased out of pity by James Bethune, who occupied a rather odd moral position, being both a proponent of slavery and a champion of human rights.


It soon became apparent that blindness was not Tom’s only affliction. He exhibited unusual personality traits, and had he been born in more recent times it is likely that he would have been diagnosed as autistic. Like a number of sufferers of autism, however, Tom proved to have a prodigious artistic talent: from a very young age he was fascinated by music, particularly the piano that was played by Bethune’s daughters. Such was his enthusiasm for the instrument that keeping him from it proved impossible, and he was permitted to play. Tom’s musical ability was thus demonstrated, but music was not his only skill; he appeared to have an affinity for all kinds of sounds, and a remarkable memory that enabled him to quickly translate them into piano compositions.


Bethune soon realised he had a talent on his hands, and fostered Tom’s musicianship, going on to take him on tour. Tom played from a repertoire that consisted partly of well known pieces and partly his own work, but also performed such feats as playing ‘The Fishers Hornpipe’ with one hand and ‘Yankee Doodle’ with the other. In addition, he demonstrated his memory on stage, immediately playing pieces presented to him by members of the audience, and reciting verbatim the speeches of various political figures.


But Tom’s story is not simply one of talent and success; given his position as a slave, and conditions of autism and blindness, the question of exploitation must of course be explored.


Responsibility for Tom was passed between the hands of many individuals, almost all of whom were hoping to profit from him. Enormous sums of money were made from his performances, and very little of this went to Tom himself. Less still was given to his family; his mother died in poverty at the age of a hundred and one. Even when Tom’s novelty began to wear off, and his actual musical ability began to be questioned, money continued to pour in, and his promoters’ urge to profit became uglier, with legal battles ensuing.


The issue of exploitation becomes even more thorny when the narrative reaches the era of emancipation. Once Tom was no longer a slave, he was not obliged to work for a white master. But his work was his passion, and nothing could keep him from his music. However, there were a great number of people who proved able to keep him from the profits he was rightfully entitled to. Evidently, it was not being born a slave that made Tom most vulnerable to this; it was his disability, which prevented him from questioning his role in the business interests of other men, and ensured that he was content as long as he continued to play music and to entertain.


I was reminded of Blind Tom when I recently attended a production of Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus. The musical memory and unstable personality of Mozart, as presented in that play brought Tom to mind and made me wonder whether Mozart might also have suffered from some kind of personality disorder. There was no jealous Salieri figure in Blind Tom’s life, but there were several who were at least as iniquitous. The motivations of these were not jealousy, but greed, albeit a strain of greed that was no doubt influenced by slavery.


Blind Tom is a biography of a little known personality, and delivers all that such a book should. O’Connell clearly demonstrates that Blind Tom is important not only as a musician, or as a freed slave, but as a key figure in a period of history, when questions of race and equality were being asked more openly, but were still far from resolution. His story is one of music and celebrity, but at its core it is one of humanity.

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Alan Ashton-Smith has a PhD in Humanities and Cultural Studies from the University of London, where the subject of his thesis was Gypsy Punk. He lives in London, and is Live Reviews Editor for the music website Shout4Music.


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