Our next post for Black History Month is dedicated to “Blind” Tom Wiggins, the master pianist and musical prodigy. Tom was born on a plantation in Harris County, Georgia in 1849 and sold to a lawyer in Columbus. He was blind from birth, and as such was deemed unable to do work other enslaved persons were forced to perform. As a result of this, he spent a good bit of time within the plantation home and quickly acquired some piano skills by ear, from listening to the slave owner’s children play. From this point on, Tom’s skills grew exponentially as he composed several pieces beginning at age five. You can find archived scans of some of Tom’s compositions at this link from the Library of Congress.
Unfortunately, Tom’s story is a horrible example of the exploitation of Black excellence by those in power. At the age of eight, Tom was toured by a concert promoter across the US as a “Barnum-style freak”, as he was frequently compared to animals like baboons or dogs. Tom earned the promoter and the slave owner the 21st century equivalent of $1.5 million a year. It goes without saying that Tom did not receive this money.
Today, many believe Tom was also Autistic, given the accounts of his mannerisms, his prodigious photographic memory and his talents.
We do not have recordings of Tom playing, and are left with only sheet music. One of his most well-known compositions is “The Battle of Manassas”, which you can hear played by a pianist in this YouTube video. It is more than a song, it is a tone poem, with the sounds and volume coming together to tell a musical story of the Battle of Manassas, which Tom composed after hearing first-hand stories of the battle from one of the slave owner’s sons. (Webmistress’ notes: I truly hope that, if it is accessible to you, you take a few minutes to listen to the performance of this composition. As you do, please keep in mind that Tom composed this at a young age, and it is a musical representation of how he viewed the Civil War battles that so greatly affected his life. It’s meant to be aggressive, loud, angry and impactful; and it is. Truly.)
Another of Tom’s compositions is Sewing Song, performed in this YouTube video. This song was composed earlier in life than The Battle of Manassas, during a time when Tom is reported to have mimicked many sounds in the world around him. In particular, this is his musical interpretation of a sewing machine working. It stands in stark contrast to The Battle of Manassas. The tempo changes near the end echo the same tempo changes one can hear in a pedal-driven sewing machine. (Webmistress’ notes: as I listen to this composition, I can almost see my grandmother, Helen, sitting beside me pressing the pedal on her sewing machine, an oscillating rhythm feeding power to the needle & presser foot. I’m taken aback every time I listen to this and think of Tom.) Tom was truly a genius, and we are grateful for what we have today that remembers, celebrates and honors him.
You can read more about Tom Wiggins on Wikipedia by clicking here.
Images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and the Library of Congress.
“The Battle of Manassas” performed above by pianist Jeannette Fang assisted by Jean Bernard Cerin.
“Sewing Song” performed above by PianoLIT on YouTube.