Tom Wiggins (1849-1908) was an autistic savant born into slavery. Possessing formidable skill on the piano, he became an international attraction, traveling under the lifelong “management” of his pre-Civil War masters, the Bethunes. He earned approximately $800,000 to 1 million dollars for the family until his death in 1908.
Blind Tom plays for Confederate Troops, 1863
The slave’s hands dance free, unfettered, flying
across ivory, feet stomping toward
a crescendo that fills the forest pine,
reminding the Rebs what they’re fighting for –
black, captive labor. Tom, slick with sweat, shows
a new trick: Back turned to his piano,
he leans like a runner about to throw
himself to freedom through forest bramble –
until he spreads his hands behind him. He
hitches fingertips to keys, hauls Dixie
slowly out of the battered upright’s teeth
like a worksong dragged across cotton fields,
like a plow, weighted and dirty, ringing
with a slaver’s song at master’s bidding.
What marked Tom?
Did a slave song at a master’s bidding
mark Tom while asleep in Charity’s womb?
The whole plantation would be called to sing
and dance in Master Epp’s large parlor room –
after work sprung from dawn and kept past dusk,
after children auctioned to parts unknown,
after funerals and whippings. Thus
was the whim of the patriarch. No groans
allowed, just high steppin’ celebration,
grins all around, gritted or sincere.
Charity threw feet, hips, arms into motion
to please the tyrant piano. Was it here
Tom learned how music can prove the master?
While he spun in a womb of slavish laughter?
Blind Tom plays for a packed house, 1873
Tom spun wild round the room. Nervous laughter
rose from the crowd. They’d come to see a freak
of nature, one clearly gripped by the after-
world. A blind, black vessel of spiritspeak.
General Bethune, his master, took his hand
and led him to the piano. When Tom
sat down, the Wonder overtook him and
bore him down upon the keys. His song
swallowed up sunlight, spat up hurricanes,
was a rainwater baptism under
a slave’s psychic hands. Was it a sound past pain,
or a hurting that knew no surrender?
The music’s title seemed to beg the question:
What the Wind, Rain and Thunder Said to Tom.
What the Wind, Rain and Thunder Said to Tom
Hear how sky opens its maw to swallow
Earth? To claim each blade and being and rock
with its spit? Become your own full sky. Own
every damn sound that struts through your ears.
Shove notes in your head till they bust out where
your eyes supposed to shine. Cast your lean
brightness across the world and folk will stare
when your hands touch piano. Bend our breath
through each fingertip uncurled and spread
upon the upright’s eighty-eight pegs.
Jangle up its teeth until it can tell
our story the way you would tell your own:
the way you take darkness and make it moan.
Charity on Blind Tom
They say Tom takes darkness and makes it moan.
I was his darkness. And Lawd, did I moan
when he came out to light. And moaned some more
when his eyes wouldn’t catch sight. Don’t
no plantation need no stumble-blind slave –
I hid him much as I could, but no way
could I keep his body’s ‘fliction away
from Master Epps. Blind, slow niggas don’t pay
nothin on auction block or in the field.
More trouble than they worth – better off dead,
said most white folk. I tell you – I had to kneel
deep in the dirt for that music in his head –
for General Bethune to buy us like gifts –
I had no idea Tom would make him rich.
General Bethune on Blind Tom
I had no idea Tom would make me rich.
Blind and crazed, like a blessed up idiot,
he’d sing bluebird songs in perfect pitch,
then bash his head against the wooden box
crib whenever his mother went to chores
in the field. He’d hop around on one leg,
bent over like a giant, pecking bird for
hours, then rattle out tunes on tin cups. I let
him stay out of compassion. Then, one day,
he heard my daughter playing piano –
Haydn, I believe. It was like a weight
fell upon him – a labor to make him whole.
My charity finally got its reward
Who am I to deny this gift to the world?
Blind Tom plays on…
Who am I to deny this world? This gift
of music storming through me? It howls out
my fingers when I reach into God’s mouth
of piano, grabbin’ fistfuls of sun with
each song. It spins me in circles, surrounds
me in starshine, mounts my head, hands and heart
till I tell it what it wants, tell it how
we are all one wave of notes in the dark
gospel of the universe. Can’t you hear
the chorus of moonlight? Can’t you see
the way each note shines? It’s all right here
just beneath the skin, like something I seem
to remember – the sound of my mother crying
while her hands danced across me – free, flying…