The Ballad of Blind Tom
by Ed Ward
The Ballad of Blind Tom, by Deirdre O’Connell
Overlook Duckworth 288 pp, hard, $24.95
America’s first black superstar was blind. No, not Ray Charles: way before him there was Blind Tom (1849-1908), whose name has cropped up in many histories of American showbiz, but until now has never had an entire book devoted to him.
There’s a good reason for that, of course: until I got O’Connell’s biography, I never suspected there was enough known about him to write one. Apparently there were a couple of efforts before hers, but they were never completed. As it turns out, there’s a lot more known about Tom than one might expect, albeit not quite enough for a book without a lot of padding.
The outline of the story goes like this: Tom and his mother Charity were bought by General James Neil Bethune, a small landholder, newspaper editor, and gentleman-fallen-on-hard-times in Columbus, Georgia. Bethune was apparently given to acts of kindness like buying Charity and Tom: a disabled slave child would have been killed as soon as possible by most slaveholders so as not to distract the mother from her duties and not serve as an economic burden.
Tom, however, was burdened by more than blindness. As soon as he could walk, he started to run away, so the Bethunes were obliged to build a box to keep him in. He also was obsessed with sound, and imitated everything he heard, although he was incapable of communicating through language. Charity and her common-law husband Mingo had to split nights watching over him. At three, Tom ran to the Bethune’s house one evening, drawn by the sound of the four Bethune children singing. He raised such a commotion outside that they let him in, and he became a fifth harmonizing voice almost immediately.
The next year, J.N. Bethune bought the family a piano, and Tom was riveted by it: “at first he stood spellbound, then his eyes began to roll, his fingers to twitch, and his body to sway back and forth when suddenly he convulsed with emotion and the contortions of his body were something painful to behold,” as one family member later recalled. and, after a couple of days’ random banging, he began to pick out first melodies, then entire compositions.
An idea was forming in J.N.’s head, and he began to teach the child to talk, and to hire musicians who came to Columbus to play at his house, so that Tom could hear – and copy – what they played. It got to where Tom was playing the piano twelve hours a day, sometimes stopping to run outside, play a little, and come back in and improvise something which he would explain as “what the stars told me” or “what the wind told me.”
A year later, accompanied by J.N.’s 21-year-old son John and another man, he was being “exhibited” at various venues in Georgia. And, although the touring circuit would eventually expand to take in the entire United States and Canada (and, once, Europe), and his repertoire would also expand, this would be Tom’s life until 1908, when a stroke shut down one side of his body and he could no longer play.
In short, it’s a horrible story. From various details, O’Connell has speculated, probably correctly, that Tom wasn’t so much developmentally disabled as autistic. Bethune, father and son, inculcated in Tom at a very young age that “lawyers” were always looking to steal him (as was probably the case during the Civil War, when the touring party had to dodge the Yankees) and take him away from their loving company.
He was kept away from everyone except hotel waiters and such other personnel as were absolutely necessary to get him from the hotel to the performance venue to the railroad station. (Railroad travel with him was excruciating for his fellow passengers, who included, once, Mark Twain, who witnessed Tom’s immersion in the sonic world first-hand: “What a wild state he was in! Clattering, hissing, whistling, blowing off gauge cocks, ringing his bell, thundering over bridges with a row and a racket like everything was going to pieces, whooping through tunnels, running over cows – Heavens! I thought, will this devil never run his viewless express off the track and give us a rest? No, sir. For three dreadful hours he kept it up…”)
In order to enforce this, Bethune, after emancipation, knowing that he could no longer claim him as an outright slave, railroaded through a Georgia court a verdict of non compos mentis and appointed himself Tom’s guardian. This was horrifyingly compounded the day that one of Tom’s MCs referred to him during his introduction as an “idiot” and Tom threw a chair at him. The man corrected himself, saying he was non compos mentis, and in later years, when the touring party had been pared to essentials, Tom would parrot the introduction word-for-word.
The Bethunes, given that they made an incredible amount of money off of Tom (O’Connell reckons it to be close to $20 million at today’s rates), certainly didn’t take very good care of their investment. They never allowed him to vary his program, for some reason (although there’s no evidence whether Tom wanted to change it or not, nor even that he really understood much about what he was doing on stage), meaning that towards the end of his stint with them, he was not only performing stale material, but there was very little point in seeing him more than once.
Their disregard for him was so obvious that in 1884, when John Bethune was killed trying to board a moving train, his estranged widow, Eliza Stutzbach, was able to mount a campaign to liberate “the last American slave,” a campaign which (at least until she became too much of a bother to the ambitious woman) also included Tom’s mother, Charity. In the courtroom, after the decision found in her favor, Tom’s lifelong programming kicked in and he begged to be able to return to Georgia with J.N.
It’s hard to tell if that would have been any better than what befell him. Eliza had even less of an idea what to do with Tom than the Bethunes had, keeping him a virtual prisoner in her home on St. Mark’s Place in New York, and trying her best to squeeze some last dollars out of a declining phenomenon. Constantly dodging creditors, she married her lawyer, and Tom got to spend his last days playing New York’s dying vaudeville circuit. The series of strokes which ended his life was, in some ways, a blessing.
One thing The Ballad of Blind Tom is short on is music. This isn’t O’Connell’s fault: all that remains of him is some sheet music, compositions released under different names (for some reason, either Tom or Bethune wouldn’t use Thomas Wiggins, as close to a “real name” as he had, although the pseudonyms were always followed by “Blind Tom” in parentheses). The nascent recording industry wouldn’t have been interested in someone who was no longer drawing large crowds, so we’ll never hear one of his allegedly weird nature-based improvisations. It wasn’t until a couple of years ago that a young white American pianist, John Davis, recorded an album of Tom’s compositions, most of which sound like conventional 19th Century parlor music.
So it’s a credit to O’Connell that from her home in Australia she was able to piece this story together with minimal error (I admit to laughing at a reference to an event in Cincinnati followed by one to “nearby Oberlin College” diagonally across the state of Ohio), even if she did have to pad it with some irrelevant speculations about African-American religion and its relationship with the spirit world of Africa (as a tool of pro-slavery forces who parroted the pro-slavery line himself, Tom didn’t have much traction in the black community), as well as a couple of quotations and anecdotes which pop up several times. It’s also a credit that she manages to sugar-coat the pill of the horrid story of Tom’s exploitation and brutalization enough to keep the reader on the page.
I found myself appalled by the realization that for a lot of the listeners who jammed halls to hear him, it wasn’t so much the music as the “blind idiot nigger” playing it that was the attraction, until I realized that that impulse is still very much a part of America’s popular music industry and has been for a long time. Whether it’s Frank Zappa lionizing the clearly schizophrenic Wild Man Fischer and recording a double album of his manic “songs,” or the ooh-so-bad-they’re-good Shaggs (whose story turned out to be one of parental sexual abuse) to the complex career of deeply-troubled Daniel Johnston, there seems to be a distastefully voyeuristic impulse among some pop fans that can be traced back to Blind Tom, and to other “idiots” and “morons” exhibited in sideshows.
In the end, I was left with this sobering thought: There was a time when blues singers recorded hits for white men and were paid five dollars a side and a bottle of whiskey for the whole session. That five bucks and bottle were more than Tom saw during 40 years of entertaining the American public, so in a way, the story of black show business has been uphill from the day he played his first note in public.