April 2, 2021
Thomas Wiggins, Composer and Pianist, 1849 – 1908
Some stories are difficult to tell — but they still need to be told. This is one of them. It is a window into the culture of celebrity, racism, and ableism in the 19th and early 20th centuries. But it is also the story of a musical prodigy, composer, and a “lost American genius.” And that is worth celebrating.
Thomas Greene Wiggins (1849-1908), a composer, pianist, and performer known professionally as “Blind Tom,” appeared at Klinkhart Opera House on May 25, 1892, his 43rd birthday. We know about his Klinkhart appearance from an “advertisement” slipped into the Sharon Springs community column of the Canajoharie Wide-Awake Courier on May 24, 1892.
The article is included here, as it was written, in language typical of the times.
Who has not heard of Blind Tom, the great Negro wonder in the musical line? But it is far better to have heard of him. He is an idiot, and as black as Negroes can be produced. He was given but one talent and that the gift of music. That one gift has made Blind Tom’s since boyhood one of the wonders of the world. Blind Tom will appear in Klinkhart Opera House, Wednesday, May 25 to give an exhibition of his wonderful skill in manipulating the piano. No one should miss a chance to hear this great and mysterious musical wonder, for they will never forget the strange and pleasing effect of his performances. We are not speaking here for Blind Tom’s managers, but for our readers who have not heard this mysterious fascinating musical wonder.Canajoharie Wide-Awake Courier, May 25, 1892, “Sharon Springs Department”; photo of Thomas Wiggins, early 1890s
By the time Wiggins appeared at the Klinkhart Opera House, he had been a celebrated pianist and performer for many years, reportedly the highest-paid musician in the country. “Blind Tom” was billed in printed advertisements as “The Most Marvelous Musical Genius Living!” and “The Great Musical Mystery of the Nineteenth Century!”
Born to enslaved parents in Columbus, Georgia, Thomas Wiggins was blind from birth and dismissed as a “useless burden” by his enslavers. Sorting fact from fiction about Wiggins’ early life is difficult, but he is said to have been able to imitate sung melodies with astonishing accuracy by age two and to have been able to play the piano soon after, having learned by listening to the slave owner’s daughters. He was also able to compose original tunes at a very early age.
“The Rainstorm” is thought to be his first composition, probably at age five. This and his other early compositions have obvious similarities to other music of the times, but they frequently incorporate natural and mechanical sounds, giving them their unique and often dramatic character. “Sewing Song (Imitation of a Sewing Machine)” is an exceptional example.
His extraordinary abilities made Wiggins a celebrity. But there is another side to the story, one usually ignored throughout his performing life. From the age of eight, Wiggins’ musical talent was shamefully and relentlessly exploited by slave owner “General” (a specious title) James Bethune and his family for over fifty years. Bethune started by using him as entertainment for family and friends, but soon realized the economic potential of his “property” and began organizing paid concerts. He soon hired an aggressive promoter who, with Barnum-like hyperbole turned “Blind Tom” into a touring musical prodigy, “The Eighth Wonder.” His success was spectacular.
Prior to the Civil War, still a slave, Wiggins became so well known across the country that, at age 11 (in 1860), he was invited by President James Buchanan to give a performance at the White House, the first African-American ever invited to do so.
As noted by Anthony Tommasini, chief classical music critic for the New York Times, in a recent article:
There are countless testimonies to his fathomless skills, even if they often reek of paternalistic or white supremacist attitudes. During a tour to Europe when Wiggins was 16, he won praise from major musicians. The composer and pianist Ignaz Moscheles deemed him a “singular and inexplicable phenomenon.“The New York Times, March 3, 2021
According to biographer Geneva Handy Southall, by the age of 16, Wiggins’:
. . . repertory included many of the most technically and musically demanding works of Bach, Chopin, Liszt, Beethoven, Thalberg, and other European masters. Like other pianists of that time, he demonstrated his improvisational and theoretical skills by performing variations and fantasies on operatic arias and popular ballads of the day. Other astonishing feats included his alleged ability to perform difficult selections almost flawlessly after one hearing, sing and recite poetry and prose in several languages, duplicate phonetically lengthy orations by noted statesmen, and reproduce sounds of nature, machines, and musical instruments on the piano.from Blind Tom: The Black Pianist-Composer, Continually Enslaved
A 32-page pamphlet containing a summary of Blind Tom’s life, lists of works from his repertory, along with various “testimonials and opinions” from the US and England. The complete pamphlet can be viewed at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History & Culture.
After his European tour, and after the Civil War, the Bethunes continued to tour Wiggins across the United States. In 1869, while on his lecture tour in San Francisco, Mark Twain attended a performance three nights in a row and wrote for the local newspaper that Wiggins’ performance “swept [the audience] like a storm, with his battle-pieces; he lulled them to rest again with melodies as tender as those we hear in dreams; he gladdened them with others that rippled through the charmed air as happily and cheerily as the riot the linnets make in California woods.”
The Tommasini article cited earlier notes that, while his talents were clearly astonishing,
Wiggins’s concerts became outlandish spectacles. He had a habit of gyrating and moving his body spasmodically while performing, and even while being promoted as the “Wonder of the World,” many described him as an “idiot,” even an “imbecile” or a “marvelous freak of nature.”
Today, Wiggins’ condition would likely be described as autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and further identified as “savant syndrome.” The syndrome is still not entirely understood, but it is defined as “a rare, but spectacular, condition in which persons with various developmental disorders, including autistic disorder, have astonishing islands of ability, brilliance or talent that stand in stark, markedly incongruous contrast to overall limitation.”
But in addition to now-outdated attitudes and terminology used to characterize his physical and mental capabilities, there is also a dark undertone in the assessment of Wiggins’ talent. His abilities were sometimes ascribed to mysterious or even supernatural causes since prevailing attitudes of white audiences held that no Black person could otherwise possibly possess such extraordinary talent.
Composer, musicologist, and Professor of American Music at Columbia University George E. Lewis wrote, also in the New York Times, that such disregard is typical of attitudes towards Black composers: “A cone of silence hangs over the work of Black composers from Africa and its diaspora. It is not that Black men and women have not written music, but too often it has been ignored — and thus assumed not to exist at all.”
Wiggins was also exploited financially. Perhaps the highest-paid performer of his time, and often forced to do as many as four performances a day, he earned a fortune for the Bethune family. It is estimated that the family earned over $750,000 from Wiggins’ performances over his lifetime, the equivalent of perhaps $20 million today. Even after emancipation, the Bethunes contrived to continue as Wiggins’ legal guardian, often fighting among themselves over control. (The New York Times archive has a long and tawdry series of articles from the 1860s until his death in 1908 – and beyond – of the Bethune family’s custody fights over Wiggins and their arguments over money.)
At the height of his performing career, Wiggins was given a $20 per month allowance plus room and board. His family occasionally received a stipend from their former enslavers, at least until, in Wiggins’ mother’s words, “they stole him away.”
There are apparently no recordings of Wiggins himself performing, but many of his original compositions were published during his life and are still available. Based on these, Thomas Wiggins has at long last begun to come into his own as a true, original American composer.
Among other notable overlooked composers and works, musicologist George Lewis singles out Wiggins and “The Battle of Manassas,” as examples of extraordinary originality and invention. Composed at age 14 while he was still a slave, and seemingly a celebration of the early Confederate victory, Lewis suggests that the work “can be heard today, as an anticipation of that regime’s collapse — and as a soundtrack for the decommissioning of Confederate statues, those physically imposing paeans to Jim Crow that merely posture as history.”
By any measure, it is a spectacular composition. In a conversation with Lewis, pianist Jeremy Denk describes the piece as “modernism before its time.” Denk, who gave a live-streamed performance of the work at Caramoor in Katonah, NY in October 2020, agreed with Lewis that a level of irony runs through the music. He compares it to the work of Shostakovich, which “folded episodes of triumphant marches and brass odes to victory into his symphonies that, if you are so inclined, come across as bitter embedded protests against the repressive Soviet regime.” Listening to Denk’s performance you will hear exactly what he means.
The legacy of thomas wiggins
When Wiggins performed at Klinkhart Opera House in 1892, he was an international celebrity and a household name. When he died in 1908 of an apparent stroke, his death was reported in the New York Times — as was the controversy that began the next day about whether it was really Wiggins’ body that had been collected. He was buried in Evergreen Cemetery and, perhaps, later moved by Bethune descendants to their Georgia plantation. After that, he was nearly forgotten. But not entirely.
Musicologist, pianist, and college professor Geneva Handy Southall published three books on Wiggins (1979, 1983, and 1989) that revealed much about his life and helped establish his importance as a composer. In 1999, pianist John Davis released a CD that includes performances of 14 original compositions by Thomas Wiggins. For many, Southall and Davis were the first encounter with a 19th-century musical genius.
As with other historic performers at Klinkhart Opera House, we do not know the program presented on May 25, 1892, but in addition to his regular programme of works by other composers, we can reasonably expect that it included some of his own extraordinary, original works.
Here is a playlist of some of Wiggins’ original compositions, performed by pianist John Davis. (You will need a Spotify account to listen to the full tracks, but it’s free and easy to set one up. Otherwise, listen to a short snippet from each track here, or revisit the performances linked earlier in this post.)
and imagine hearing these extraordinary sounds in the Klinkhart Opera House, in Sharon Springs, NY, on May 25, 1892.
They all found inspiration in Thomas Wiggins — his story and his music.
In his memoir, To Be, Or Not To Bop, legendary American jazz trumpeter, bandleader, composer, educator and singer Dizzy Gillespie wrote that Blind Tom:
“traveled all over the world doing concerts and got write ups from all of the papers and played for kings and queens, and all of this, telling how great Blind Tom was, that there was nobody – he had no peers. There seems to be a little conspiracy; they don’t want blacks to have the credit.”
In May 1979, Gillespie gave him credit: he took time out from his tour of Georgia to find the Thomas Wiggins memorial marker in Columbus and to play When the Saints Go Marching In. Perhaps “Blind Tom” could finally rest in peace after that.
After reading Deirdre O’Connell’s 2009 biography, The Ballad of Blind Tom: Slave Pianist, America’s Lost Musical Genius, a musical legend of a different sort also found inspiration in Wiggins’ story. “The Ballad of Blind Tom,” with lyrics by Bernie Taupin, was recorded by Elton John in 2013 on his album The Diving Board. The album was produced in collaboration with another legendary musician, T. Bone Burnett. The Ballad is a modern take on Wiggins’ life as an exploited and stigmatized performer with, perhaps, some echoes of his compositions in John’s piano phrasing. You can listen here.
You can help ensure that the arts have a home in Sharon Springs by supporting our efforts to restore the same historic “Klinkhart Opera House” where Thomas Wiggins performed in 1892.
“Blind Piano Prodigy Thomas Greene Bethune.” White House Historical Association, https://www.whitehousehistory.org/blind-piano-prodigy-thomas-greene-bethune. Accessed 9 Mar. 2021.
Biography of Thomas Bethune Also Known as Thomas Wiggins – Blind Tom. http://www.twainquotes.com/archangels.html. Accessed 9 Mar. 2021.
Lewis, George E. “Lifting the Cone of Silence From Black Composers.” The New York Times, 3 July 2020. NYTimes.com, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/03/arts/music/black-composers-classical-music.html.
O’Connell, Deirdre. The Ballad of Blind Tom: Slave Pianist, America’s Lost Musical Genius. 1st ed., Overlook, 2009, http://www.blindtom.org/.
Southall, Geneva Handy. Blind Tom, The Black Composer-Pianist: Continually Enslaved. 1st ed., Scarecrow, 2002.
Tommasini, Anthony. “He Was Born Into Slavery, but Achieved Musical Stardom.” The New York Times, 3 Mar. 2021. NYTimes.com, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/03/arts/music/thomas-wiggins-blind-tom-piano.html.
Treffert, Darold A. “The Savant Syndrome: An Extraordinary Condition. A Synopsis: Past, Present, Future.” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, vol. 364, no. 1522, May 2009, pp. 1351–57. PubMed Central, doi:10.1098/rstb.2008.0326.