Brochure on Blind Tom Wiggins is published
The Marvelous musical prodigy, Blind Tom,: the Negro boy pianist, whose performances at the great St. James and Egyptian halls, London, and Salle Hertz, Paris, have created such a profound sensation.
Anecdotes, songs, sketches of the life, testimonials of musicians and savans, and
opinions of the American and English press, of "Blind Tom."
FRENCH & WHEAT, BOOK AND JOB PRINTERS,
13 AND 15 PARK ROW.
Blind Tom can only play what he hears or improvises. Until about two years ago a list of pieces that Tom had heard was kept, numbering nearly 2,000. Unfortunately this catalogue was lost. Since that period he has heard perhaps 3,000 pi eces, and his repertoire now numbers upwards of 5,000, entirely at his memory's disposal. From this extensive store Tom will introduce selections from Beethoven, Bach, Mendelssohn, Chopin, Thalberg, Gottschalk, and others; and also give his marvelous and amusing Imitations, Recitations, Anecdotes, &c., &c.
THE GREAT NEGRO PIANIST.
The performances and the character of the child generally attract so little attention, or the remembrance of them is so obscured by the lapse of time before the achievements of the man have made them subjects of interest, that it is always difficult, and often impossible, to gratify the curiosity naturally felt, to know the traits, qualities, and actions, which people imagine must have stamped the child as remarkable, as in the man they have been developed into powers which have lifted him to fame. Such, however, has not been the case with the subject of this sketch. His peculiarities were so singular, and some of them apparently so incompatible with others, as to attract attention in his early infancy; his powers so wonderful, even in their first manifestations as to astonish and bewilder all who witnessed them. Those who did not witness, did not believe; or rather they could not conceive; for after making all due allowance for what they conceived the marvelous in narration, their powers of conception, of what was possible to such a being, fell far short of the truth; an d it may be safely asserted that, to this day, no matter what they may have read or heard, or what they may have been led to expect, none have heard him for the first time, without a feeling of astonishment, and an involuntary acknowledgment to themselves that the reality had exceeded the expectations they had formed, and that "the half had not been told them."
Speculations have been made and theories formed without number, as to the source and the nature of these wonderful powers; it forms no part of the purpose of the writer to speculate or theorize; it is proposed to furnish facts and leave others to form their own theories and make their own speculations.
Thomas Greene Bethune (his parents having taken for him and themselves the name of their former owner), better known to the public as "Blind Tom," was born within a few miles of the city of Columbus, in the county of Muscogee, and State of Georgia, on the 25th day of May, 1849. His parents are common field hands of the pure negro blood, with nothing to distinguish them from the mass of their race, except that his mother--a small woman of fine form--has remarkably small feet and hands, is of an active, merry temperament, and quick in her movements.
Tom was born blind, and, learning nothing from sight, manifested in his early infancy so entire a want of intellect as to induce the belief that he was idiotic as well as blind. His imbecility and helplessness secured for him the sympathy and care of the family in his infancy; when he began to walk and run about the yard, his amusing peculiarities made him a pet. His first manifestation of interest in anything was his fondness for sounds; the first indication of capacity, his power of imitating them. Musical sounds exerted a controlling influence over him; but all sounds, from the soft breathings of the flute to the harsh grating of the corn-sheller, appeared to afford him exquisite enjoyment.
He talked earlier than ot her children; and he talked no "baby talk." He uttered his words clearly and distinctly, attaching no meaning to them, but seeming to consider them merely sounds, which he imitated, as he did all others that he heard. Whatever words were addressed to him, whether in the form of a question, a command, a request, or as matter of information, he simply repeated in the tones in which they had been uttered; and would repeat not only them, but conversations he had heard--sometimes for hours at a time; yet, long after he was in possession of a vocabulary, with which, if he had known its use, he might have sustained a respectable conversation upon any ordinary topic, he never attempted to express by words an idea, a feeling, or a want. His wants he expressed by a whine, which those about him had to interpret as best they could.
The first effort to teach him was made one evening when the family was at supper, (Tom, as usual at meal times, being present,) when his owner, upon being informed that his mothe r, as an excuse for not teaching him something, had said he had not sense enough to learn anything, replied, "That is a mistake. A horse or a dog may be taught almost anything, provided you always use precisely the same terms to express the same idea. Show him what you mean, and have the patience to repeat it often enough. Tom has as much sense as a horse or dog, and I will show you that he can be taught." He thereupon arose from the table, and approaching Tom, said to him, "Tom, sit down." Tom, of course was was expected, stood still and repeated the words. He repeated the order and sat him down upon the floor. He then said to him, "Tom, get up." Tom sat still and repeated the order. He then repeated the order and lifted Tom to his feet. He then ordered Tom to sit down, which he did promptly--to get up, and he sprang to his feet. From that time there was matter of new interest about Tom. Everybody began to teach him something. It was soon discovered that he forgot nothing. Present to him any number o f objects, one after another, tell him the name of each as you presented it, he would put his hand upon it, smell of it, and pronounce its name; then present them in any order you pleased, and, after feeling and smelling of each as it was presented, he would, without fail, give its appropriate name. It was astonishing and interesting to test and to witness the exercise of this power, and, in consequence, Tom speedily learned to distinguish many things and call them by name.
He was perfectly delighted by cries of pain. When his mother whipped any of the older children he would laugh and caper, and rub his hands in an ecstasy of enjoyment, and soon would be found whipping himself, and repeating the words of the mother and the cries of the child. He enjoyed so highly the crying of children that he would inflict pain upon them, for the pleasure of hearing them cry; and a constant watch had to be kept on him when he was about younger children. He once choked a younger brother nearly to death, and at another time burnt an infant sister so badly as to produce fears of a fatal result. To this day any exclamation or expression indicative of pain gives him great pleasure; and though he will express sympathy for the sufferer, and prescribe remedies for his relief, he cannot restrain his expressions of pleasure. Doubtless it is the strength and the intensity of expression given to sounds produced by pain, that afford the enjoyment.
His mother usually did the churning; and when she was engaged in that employment, when he was unable to reach the top of the churn of ordinary size, he would whine and tug at her, until she would stand him on a stool and permit him to go to work. He did all the churning for the family as long as he remained at home, and was perhaps the only person who ever sought it as a source of pleasure.
Unlike other children, he delighted in being out of doors and alone at night, and unless prevented by being shut up in the house, would go into the yard, where he would go around a circle in a sort of dance, accompanying his motion sometimes with a monotonous hum, sometimes repeating conversations he had heard; then he would stop and whirl round like a top, rubbing his hands together, convulsed with laughter, as if he had found something which irresistibly moved him to mirth. This propensity to be out of doors was indulged by his parents the more readily, because, if they kept him in the house, he resorted to all the means in his power to make a noise. He dragged the chairs over the floor, rattled the dishes, beat the tin pans, and, unless closely watched, pinched or bit the younger children to make them cry. If they put him to bed they scared but little relief, for he would roll and twist himself into all sorts of shape, and laugh and talk for hours, and frequently, unless the door was securely fastened, would get up after everybody else was asleep, and go out to amuse himself in the yard.
His power of judging of the lapse of time was as remarkable as his power of remembering and imitating sounds. Those who are familiar with clocks which strike the hours, have observed that, a few minutes before the clock strikes, there is a sharp sound, different from and louder than the regular ticking. There was a clock in the house; and every hour in the day, just precisely when that sound was produced, Tom was certain to be there, and remain until the hour struck. At one time the striking machinery got out of order, but every hour, just at the time, he was there to listen; and so soon as the time for the clock to strike had passed, he would set up a cry and leave.
He exhibited his wonderful musical powers before he was two years old. When the young misses of the family sat on the steps, of an evening, and sang, Tom would come around and sing with them. One of them one evening said to her father:
"Pa, Tom sings beautifully, and he don't have to learn any tunes; he knows them all; for as soon as we begin to sing, he sings right along with us."
Very soon she said:
"He sings fine seconds to anything we sing."
His voice was then strong, soft, and melodious. Just before he had completed his second year, he had the whooping-cough, from the effects of which his voice underwent an entire change: it became and continued for years exceedingly rough and harsh, though it did not affect the taste or correctness of his singing.
He was little less than four years of age when a piano was brought to the house. The first note that was sounded, of course, brought him up. He was permitted to indulge his curiosity by running his fingers over and smelling the keys, and was then taken out of the parlor. As long as any one was playing he was contented to stay in the yard, and dance and caper to the music; but the moment it ceased, having discovered whence the sounds proceeded, and how they were produced, he was anxious to get to the in strument to continue them. One night the parlor and the piano had been left open, his mother had neglected to fasten her door, and he had escaped without her knowledge. Before day, the young ladies awoke, and, to their astonishment, heard Tom playing one of their pieces. He continued to play until the family at the usual time arose, and gathered around him to witness and wonder at his performance, which, though necessarily very imperfect, was marvelously strange; for, notwithstanding this was his first k nown effort at a tune, he played with both hands, and used the black as well as the white keys.
After a while he was allowed free access to the piano, and commenced playing everything he heard. He soon mastered all of that, and commenced composing for himself. He would sit at the piano for hours, playing over the pieces he had heard, then go out, and run and jump about the yard a little while, come back and play something of his own. Asked what it was, he replied, "It is what the wind said to me," or "what the birds said to me," or "what the trees said to me," or what something else said to him. No doubt what he was playing was connected, in his mind, with some sound or combination sounds proceeding from those things, and not infrequently the representation was so good as to render the similarity clear to others.
There was but one thing which seemed to give Tom as much pleasure as the sound of the piano. Between a wing and the body of the dwelling there is a hall, on the roof of w hich the rain falls, from the roof of the dwelling, and runs thence down a gatter. There is, in the combination of sounds produced by the falling and running water, something so enchanting to Tom, that, from his early childhood to the time he left home, whenever it rained, whether by day or night, he would go into that passage and remain as long as the rain continued. When he was less than five years of age, having been there during a severe thunderstorm, he went to the piano and played what is now known as his Rain Storm, and said it was what the rain, the wind, and the thunder said to him. The perfection of the representation can be fully appreciated by those only who have heard the sounds by the falling of the water upon the roofs, and its running off through the gutters.
There was in the city of Columbus a German music teacher, who kept pianos and music for sale. The boys about the city having heard much of Tom, sometimes asked the boys of the family to take him to town, that they might hear him; upon these occasions they asked permission of this man to use one of his pianos, and though he would grant the permission, he would not hear him. If he was engaged he would send them to the back part of the store, which was a very deep one; if he had nothing to do, he would walk out into the street. When Tom was about eight years of age, a gentleman having obtained permission to exhibit him, hired a piano of this man and invited him to visit his conce rt. He indignantly rejected the invitation.
The man, however, succeeded in awakening the curiosity of the wife of the musician sufficiently to induce her to attend, and she gave her husband such accounts that he went the next night. After the performance was over, he approached the man and said:
"Sir, I give it up; the world has never seen such a thing as that little blind negro, and will never see such another."
Encouraged by this the exhibitor the next day applied to him to undertake to teach Tom. His reply then was:
"No, sir; I can't teach him anything; he knows more of music that we know, or can learn--we can learn all that great genius can reduce to rule and put in tangible form; he knows more than that; I do not even know what it is, but I see and feel it is something beyond my comprehension. All that can be done for him will be to let him hear fine playing; he will work it all out by himself after a while, but he will do it sooner by hearing fine music ."
It has been stated that Tom was born blind; in his infancy and for years the pupils of his eyes were as white and apparently as inanimate as those of a dead fish. But nature pointed out to him a remedy which gradually relieved him from total darkness, and in process of time conferred upon him, to a limited extent, the blessings of vision.
When he was three of four years of age, it was observed that he passed most of his time with his face upturned to the sun, as if gazing intentl y upon it, occasionally passing his hand back and forth with a rapid motion before his eyes; that was soon followed by thrusting his fingers into his eyes with a force which appeared to be almost sufficient to expel the eye-balls from their sockets; from this he proceeded to digging into one of them with sticks, until the blood would run down his face. All this must have been pleasant to him, or he would not have done it; and there is no doubt that he is indeb ted to the stimulus thus applied to his eyes, for the measure of sight he now enjoys. When five or six years of age, a small, comparatively clear speck appeared in one of his eyes, and it was discovered that within a very small space he could see any bright object. That eye has continued to clear, until he is now able to see luminous bodies at a distance, and can distinguish small bodies by bringing them close to his eye. Persons that he knows well, he can distinguish at the distance of a few feet, and i t is hoped that in process of time his sight will so far improve, as to relieve him from many of the difficulties to which he is subjected.
The mere technicalities of music Tom learns without difficulty. Its substance he seems to comprehend intuitively. To teach him the notes, it was necessary only to sound them, and tell him their names. With the elements and principles of music he seemed to be familiar, long before he knew any of the names by which they were indicated; as a man going into a strange country may be perfectly acquainted with the appearance and nature of the material objects which meet his view, without knowing the names applied to them by the people.
Considering that in early life he learned nothing, and later but little from sight, that he is possessed by an overmastering passion, which so pervades his whole nature as to leave little room for interest in anything else, and the gratification of which has been indulged to the largest extent, it is not surprising that, to the outside world, he should exhibit but few manifestations of intellect as applicable to any of the ordinary affairs of life, or that those who see him only under its influence should conclude that he is idiotic.
The elegance, taste and power of his performances, his wonderful power of imitation, his extraordinary memory--not only of music, but of names, dates and events--his strict adherence to what he believes to be right, his uniform politeness, and his nice sense of propriety, afford to those who know him well, ample refutation of this opinion.
Tom sometimes indulges in some strange gymnastics upon the stage, which are considered by many a part of his stage training. So far from this being the case, it is but a slight outcropping of his usual exercises. If those who see him upon the stage could witness his performances in his room, and the enjoyment they afford him, they would perhaps regret the necessity of his restraint in public. He never engaged in the plays of children or manifested any interest in them. His amusements were all his own. With a physical organization of great power and vigor, and an exuberance of animal spirits, he naturally sought physical exercise; compelled by want of sight to limit himself to a small space, he put himself in almost every conceivable posture, and restored to those exercises which required the most violent physical exertion. They are now necessary certainly to his enjoyment, perhaps to his health.
Tom has been seen probabl y by more people than any one living being. He has played in almost every important city in the United States and in a great many of the smaller towns-and everywhere to good houses except in Boston--in Paris, and most of the principal cities of England and Scotland; and everywhere he has astonished and pleased those who have heard him. Those who have observed him most closely, and attempted to investigate him most fully, pronounce him "a living miracle," unpar alleled, incomprehensible, such as has not been seen before, and probably will never be seen again.
[From the Commercial.]
Pittsburg, April 6th , 1866.
In compliance with the request of the manager of 'Blind Tom,' who states that doubt is sometimes expressed in regard to the early development of 'Blind Tom's' wonderful 'musical talent,' I would state that in the year 1853, at which time I was residing in Columbus, Georgia, this boy (at that time about four years of age) was brought to my notice under the following circumstances:--While engaged in looking over some music, in company with a Professor of Music, in a music store, this boy was brought in by Mr. James N. Bethune (an old and respected citizen of that place), who stated that he believed this child to possess extraordinary talent. From the appearance of the boy, the Professor was somewhat skeptical, but determined to give him a chance. I lifted him to his s eat at the piano; he played several pieces. The Professor then performed a piece of his own composition, not at that time published. To my surprise 'Tom' played it immediately after him, demonstrating at once, possession of wonderful and mysterious knowledge of music. At that time he was entirely blind, apparently idiotic, and displayed the same restlessness of body as at present. Upon expressing my astonishment at his evident genius, the Professor shrugged his shoulders, and said, 'mere imitation; no progressive talent.' I expressed my conviction to him that, if the boy lived, he would become the musical wonder of the world. Removing from that section, I saw no more of 'Tom' until April 6, 1866. He remembered the incident, and played for me the same piece, composed by the Professor which he performed at that time, thirteen years before.
GEORGE A. KELLY, "Pittsburg, Pa ."
PHILADELPHIA, Sept. 16th , 1865.
Dear Sir: The undersigned desire to express to you their thanks for the opportunity afforded to them of hearing and seeing the wonderful performances of your protege, the Blind Boy Pianist, Tom. They find it impossible to account for these immense results upon any hypothesis growing out of the known laws of art and science.
In the numerous tests to which Tom was subjected in our presence, or by us, he invariably came off triumphant. Whether in deciding the pitch or compo nent parts of chords the most difficult and dissonant; whether in repeating with correctness and precision any pieces--written or impromptu--played to him for the first and only time; whether in his improvisations or performances of compositions by Thalberg, Gottschalk, Verdi, and others; in fact, under every form of musical examination--and the experiments are too numerous to mention or enumerate--he showed a power and capacity ranking him among the most wonderful phenomena recorded in musical history.
Accept, dear sir, the regards of your humble servants,
JAMES M. BECK
MRS. A. MAY,
ALBERT G. EMERICK
LETTER FROM CHARLES HALLE
I have this day, for the first time, heard 'Blind Tom' play on the pianoforte, and I was very much astonished and pleased by his performance. His natural musical gifts seem to me quite marvelous , and the manner in which he repeated several pieces I played to him, which he had evidently never heard before, was most remarkable
"Perhaps the most striking feature was the extraordinary quickness with which he named any notes struck by me on the piano, either single or simultaneously , however discordant they might be. I also named to him several notes, choosing the most difficult and perplexing intervals; these he instantlysang with perfect truth of intonation, although they might have puzzled a well-educated musician. Altogether 'Blind Tom' seems to be a most singular and inexplicable phenomenon.
CHARLES HALLE. GREENHEYS, September 27th , 1866."
LETTER FROM I. MOSCHELES
"In justice to Blind Tom, I have much pleasure in stating that I think him marvelously gifted by nature . I happened to be present at a performance of his at Southsea, and at the request of the Manager, began to test his abilities by extemporizing a short rhythmical piece which he imitated to perfection , thus proving beyond all doubt that he did not impose on the public by preparation . I then went so far as to play him that part of my 'Recollections of Ireland,' in which the three melodies are blended , and even that he imitated with most of its intricacies and changes . Having tested his powers of analyzing chords , and found them all that I could desire , I next put my hands on the keys at random , and was surprised to hear him name every note of such flagrant discord . Tom's technical acquirements are very remarkable , and his entertainment full of interest for the musician and amateur
I. MOSCHELES. SOUTHESEA, September 11th , 1866."
N. B.-- I. Moscheles was the preceptor of Mendelssohn and Thalberg.
LETTER FROM PROFESSOR OAKLEY
University of Edinburgh, Scotland, Dec. 17th , 1866
I have much pleasure in adding, at the Manager's request, my mite of testimony as to the marvelous accuracy of ear and retentive musical memory possessed by 'Blind Tom,' of whose powers I have here, to-day, witnessed some remarkable proofs. I played to him on the organ--an instrument to which he is unaccustomed--(1) the first eight bars of Mendelssohn's Song No. 2, op. 34, which he reproduced after a single hearing; (2) a song of my own which he could not have previously heard, much of which he repeated; (3) a few bars of Bach's Fugue, No. 17, book 2d of the '4S,' the subject of which, as well as fragments of the answer, he imitated correctly; (4) the whole of one of Handel's Choruses from 'Samson,' parts of which Blind Tom also repeated.
He not only can name any note, chord or discord which is struck, but can also (a much rarer faculty) suggest or or iginate the exact pitch of any note he is asked to sing, and that, moreover, whilst any amount of discordant noise was made on the organ, in order to disturb, if possible, his meditations.
The two last instances I have to mention are perhaps the most striking. A 'mixture' stop (of three ranks) was drawn alone, and on a single key being pressed down, Tom accurately mentioned the three sounds which were heard. Lastly I played, to him a tune in two keys at once, which horrible discord he also fa ithfully reproduced.
Prof. of Music University of Edinburgh
"BLIND TOM'S" CONCERTS
PIANOFORTE AND MUSIC WAREHOUSE,
1 and 2 High Street, Montrose, Scotland
Permit me to call your attention to the concerts of "Blind Tom," a negro boy pianist, of extraordinary and unaccountable musical powers. On Friday and Saturday last I had the pleasure of hearing him play in the Assembly Hall, and I cannot refrain, especially as I have no professional connection with him, from informing such of the musical public of Montrose and its vicinity, as have not already heard him, that the performances of this blind negro are so wonderful that no one possessed of musical taste should lose an opportunity of listening to them.
I may say, without the slightest exaggeration, that Tom's execution of all kinds of music-from the most classical works of Beethoven, Bach, Mendelssohn, and others, down to the simplest plantation melody of "the Sunny South"--is unsurpassed by that of the best professional performers of the day.
Blind Tom's last appearance in Montrose will be this evening, in the Assembly Hall, at eight o'clock, when he will again play classical selections from Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Bach, Mozart, &c. His pianoforte solos will be taken from the compositions of Thalberg, Liszt, Chopin and others. He will also sing various songs from popular operas, and ballads from Moore and Burns, as well as some of his own composition.
As a proof of his extraordinary musical gifts, Blind Tom invites any member of the audience to play any piece of music unknown to him, and he, after a first hearing, re-plays it with the most perfect accuracy, however intricate or elaborate in harmony. He can also analyse any chord or discord struck on the instrument, if he is within hearing, naming almost as rapidly as they are struck, each individual note. As an add itional proof of his remarkable powers of imitation, he gives recitations in Greek Latin, German, French, as well as imitations of the Scotch bagpipe, the musical box, the hurdy-gurdy, the Scotch fiddler, the American stump orator comic speakers, and, in short, any sound he may hear.
I am, your most obedient servant,
December 3d , 1866.