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Blind Tom Wiggins the musician

Identifier

006091

Type of Spiritual Experience

Background

A description of the experience

from the Providentia website article Blind Tom Wiggins

Tom's master, realizing that the young slave could be a moneymaker, rented a concert hall in 1857 and "Blind Tom Bethune" made his first appearance on stage. He quickly became a popular draw for audiences who couldn't comprehend how a blind, mentally deficient slave could be an expert pianist. A concert promoter, Perry Oliver, persuaded Bethune to "hire out" Tom to him in 1858. Tom was separated from his family for the first time in his life and sent on the road. For the next few years, Tom had a gruelling schedule with four performances a day and little chance for rest.

Blind Tom was a sensation. Not only could he play complex pieces perfectly, he astonished his audience by sitting backwards at the piano and doing the same playing with his hands reversed. He traveled across the country and even gave a command performance for President James Buchanan.  Newspapers raved over "Blind Tom Bethune: The Eighth Wonder of the World" and the concert halls where he played were typically packed. By 1860, many of his compositions had been published to critical acclaim. Perry Oliver and James Bethune made a fortune from Tom's playing (very little of which went to Tom or his parents).

And then the Civil War broke out...

Tom and Perry Oliver were in New York City when Georgia seceded from the Union in 1861. After they returned to Georgia, Tom spent the rest of the war playing concerts to raise money for the Confederate cause. Many of these concerts included music that Tom had written himself and news about his playing still trickled back to Northern states. While the end of the war meant the end of Tom's slave status, James Bethune had foreseen the South's loss and made arrangements to retain control.  He had Tom's parents sign an indenturing agreement ensuring that he would act as Tom's manager until his twenty-first birthday. The money that the parents received represented only a fraction of Tom's true earnings.

The touring continued to rave reviews across the country. Mark Twain marveled over Tom's ability and wrote extensively about him in newspaper articles.

In one article, Twain commented that "some archangel, cast out of upper Heaven like another Satan, inhabits this coarse casket; and he comforts himself and makes his prison beautiful with thoughts and dreams and memories of another time... It is not Blind Tom that does these wonderful things and plays this wonderful music--it is the other party."

A lawsuit brought against James Bethune over Tom's services dragged on for years and provided even more publicity.

Audiences could never get enough of Tom's musical genius. On a European tour (in between command performances for various royal families), eminent musicians tested Tom's ability to reproduce even extremely discordant piano pieces and found that he could reproduce them all with virtually no error. His repertoire would eventually expand to more than seven thousand pieces. In addition to the piano, Tom became proficient with other instruments as well as singing.

Contemporary descriptions of Tom's performances tended to play up his idiotic nature including descriptions of his rocking behaviour, grimaces, and strange finger movements while on stage. How much of that was encouraged by his handlers to make his performances more theatrical is anybody's guess but it worked against Tom eventually.

Once Tom turned twenty-one and Bethune's agreement with the parents came to an end, there was another legal trick his manager was able to play.  James Bethune applied to the courts to have Tom declared legally insane and to have himself become his legal guardian. Despite contradictory evidence at the first custody hearing in 1870, the court ruled that Tom was incompetent and James Bethune continued to control Tom's career. After a few years on the road, John Bethune, James' son, eventually took over as Tom's manager.

The source of the experience

Blind Tom Wiggins

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