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In my last blog entry, I extensively discussed Joybubbles! a Blind phone hacker who played a significant role in the development of online information services and--ultimately--social media. I would like to dedicate this entry to another historical figure who was also Blind and possessed specialized innate skills. Like Joybubbles, this man also displayed significant communication differences and today would be considered as having an Autism Spectrum Disorder as well as intellectual disabilities. However, he would become one of the most significant musical performers of the 19th Century. By some accounts, his antics--likely similar to the self-stimulatory behaviors that many children and adults with Optic Nerve Hypoplasia and related conditions exhibit--would play a role in the evolution of modern musical styles leading up to early Rock and Roll.
The story of Blind Tom Wiggins--also known as Blind Tom Bethune--began at a slave option in 1850. His mother, charity Wiggins was sold at a slave auction to General James Neil Bethune, a prominent lawyer, newspaper publisher and secessionist in Columbus, Georgia who earned his military title in the Indian wars of the 1830's and 1840's. Because Tom was blind, he was added to the sale as a no cost extra, as he was believed to be of no value.
Given the name Thomas Greene Bethune by his master, he was allowed to roam the rooms of the mansion on the General's plantation. He loved the sounds of nature, and one of his earliest compositions, "The Rain Storm", is based on the sounds of a rain storm that occurred earlier the day of its composition.
Though he was nonverbal until the age of five or six and could "scarce walk", he was, at this time, developing an extensive musical repertoire that would ultimately consist of 7,000 pieces, according to an 1866 textbook on mental deficiency. His repertoire included pieces by such composers as Bach, Gottschalk, Liszt and Beethoven as well as more popular songs, dances and operatic paraphrases. He could also reproduce speeches and orations of the day--including those in Greek and other languages he otherwise could not understand.
Family accounts suggest that Tom had already begun playing the piano by age 4. This is not unlike other later accounts of blind people with specialized, innate skills such as Leslie Lemke as well as other children with Optic Nerve Hypoplasia and Autism characteristics, including me.
There are several versions of the discovery of Tom's unique talents on the piano. According to the family's account, one of the General's daughters was entertaining company at the Bethune mansion. After playing a difficult piece, lunch was served. Later, the same piece was heard coming from the supposedly empty parlor, and Tom was discovered playing the same piece he had just heard.
In another account reported in a 1957 journal article cited by Dr. Darold Treffert, who has studied people with specialized, innate skills extensively, the family was awakened in the middle of the night by the sound of Tom playing selections he had heard his master's daughters play before he was four. This same article also reported that Tom could reproduce all sounds from early infancy and could sing" fine seconds" to anything the family could sing. These are skills that others with specialized innate musical abilities have also demonstrated as well as some other children with Optic Nerve Hypoplasia and Autism related characteristics.
Like nearly all slave children during the Ante Bellum period, Tom did not attend school and never received formal education. Though he could perform complex pieces note for note exactly after hearing them for the first time, his communication and vocabulary were extremely limited.
Tom also demonstrated many behaviors typical of children who operate on the Autism Spectrum--including many with Optic Nerve Hypoplasia. Though he was considered legally blind, he demonstrated some light perception. According to family accounts, when he was around 3 or 4 years old, he was observed to spend most of his time staring intently at the sun. He also would pass his hand rapidly back and forth before his eyes. This is a common self-stimulatory behavior and one I exhibited personally.
Tom was highly sensitive to sounds and could repeat other's conversations, likely demonstrating the echolalia many on the Autism Spectrum exhibit to process their environment. He would deliberately drag chairs, bang pots together and provoke his siblings to scream so he could enjoy the sounds. A doctor would eventually declare HIM non compos mentis--not of sound mind. Tom was also known to engage in gyrations and other spasmodic movements while listening to compositions that he was being asked to perform during concerts. He repeatedly gyrated and made grunting noises during his performances and consistently spoke of himself in the third person, a trait not uncommon in some children and adults on the Autism Spectrum. These and other behaviors during performances added to his appeal as an untutored, primitive Black minstrel in the era of P.T. Barnum. It is important to note, however, that Ray Charles, who demonstrated similar movements and gyrations at the keyboard eighty years later, was seen as the ultimate in hip. By the time Rock and Roll emerged, such movements were expected and served as a key feature of many concerts.
Tom began his musical career at age 8 when he was loaned to Perry Oliver, a concert promoter who exhibited him throughout the country. Though his concerts earned the Bethune family more than $1.5 million in today's money, Tom was paid nothing.
At age 11, in 1860, Tom became the first African-American musician to perform at the White House before President James Buchanan. The following day, two skeptical musicians tested him at his hotel by performing two completely new compositions, one 13 pages in length, and the other 20 pages long. Tom reproduced both compositions without error. Ultimately, challenges in which Tom would be asked to reproduce compositions he had not heard would become a signature of his performances.
Tom gave his first European tour in 1866, where, at one concert, he listened to two pianos playing simultaneously while a run of twenty notes was being played on a third. He was able to reproduce the run of twenty notes exactly, proving that he had absolute pitch. He also demonstrated the capacity to carry multiple tunes simultaneously. During one performance, he played "Yankee Doodle" in B major with his right hand and "Fisher's Horn Pipe" with his left--all the while singing "Early in the Morning." Anecdotes OF children with Optic Nerve Hypoplasia whose families I have worked with show similar abilities in children with full or partial agenesis of the Corpus Callosum, which separates the right and left hemispheres of the brain. it is as if both ears are able to perform specialized tasks like singing and playing instruments through each hemisphere separately--independently of each other.
Following the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, John Bethune, the general's son, persuaded Tom's parents, Charity and Mingo Wiggins, to sign an indenture agreement binding Tom to the Bethune’s for an additional five years following the end of slavery. Though this agreement was challenged in two high-profile trials, John was ultimately granted complete control of Tom and nearly all his earnings.
In 1887, Elisa Bethune, John's estranged widow, was granted custody of Tom after his mother was enticed into signing a writ in her favor. Tom was subsequently separated from his mother as she was moved to her home in Georgia, while tom lived with Elisa in New jersey with her new husband, the lawyer who orchestrated his custody arrangements. Disallusioned with his new master's, Tom stopped performing, and most of Elisa’s earnings came from the sales of the sheet music from Tom’s original compositions.
Tom Wiggins died of a stroke on June 13 1908 and was buried in a neglected corner of Evergreen Cemetery in Brooklyn. There was no monument to his legacy until a commemorative headstone was raised for him in his hometown of Columbus, Georgia in 1976.
There were no existing recordings of any of Tom's compositions until New York Pianist John Davis released an Album of his most well-known works, "John Davis Plays Blind Tom" in 1999. This album is available to subscribers of Amazon Music using an Alexa-enabled device.
When I hear of the accomplishments and life stories of Tom Wiggins and those who came after him with specialized innate musical abilities--such as Matt Savage, Rex Lewis-Clack and Anton Sviridenko, whose work is featured on this web site--I generally do not think of the complex historical aspects of their biographies. I think of playing the piano in the preschool class I attended for the blind and visually impaired when I was five and six years old. At that time, I needed music intensely in order to process my environment, and quite honestly, to cope with being in a classroom away from home where I was expected to interact. As a small child, music was more powerful than speech or any other form of communication, and the piano was almost another part of my body.
Those who have written about Blind Tom, Thomas Wiggins, Thomas Bethune, or whatever name you choose to call him, often emphasize the historical background of his life in terms of the slave narrative. Indeed, Tom was a slave in the years prior to the Civil War, and his family used all means possible to maintain his servitude for the rest of his life.
However, as an adult who also has experience with innate skills and had the ability to play the piano as a child, I believe Tom's story is much more than this. Tom was a gifted musician with some very profound life experiences which his compositions, such as the Battle of Manassas and "The Rainstorm" reflect.
From the rumbling cadences in "The rain Storm" to the interpretations of cannons and variations of "Dixie", “the Star-spangled Banner”, and "Yankee Doodle" representing the Confederate and Union Armies interspersed in "The Battle of Manassas", Tom's music is as much a deep-seated reflection of the sensory environment he experienced as musical compositions in the normal sense. One familiar with the "Playing with Words" curriculumI discuss in my previous blog can tie how he might have tried to interpret his environment through his compositions.
Though Tom's ability to function was extremely limited and he lived at a time when access to education was nonexistent, he possessed an innate sense of the rules and structure of musical composition and a gift for harmonies unique to populations of Blind people who came after him. One can only imagine what he would be if his talents were encouraged in an environment where he could learn the skills necessary to speak for himself and plan his future independently.
A Note on Terminology Used on This Web Site
As you read my blog, you may notice that I do not use the term "savant" to refer to those with extraordinary skills like Tom Wiggins. Instead, I generally use the terms "specialized, innate skills" or "innate, specialized skills." These are terms of my own creation, and I used them for several reasons.
First, our use of the term "savant" originally derived from "idiot savant", a now pejorative term referring to a person with intellectual disabilities who also possesses extraordinary abilities in a specific, narrowly defined area. This term was later changed to "Autistic Savant". As an adult with experience with some unique abilities who is also Blind, I am satisfied with neither term.
Neither term reflects my experience of having such abilities or how they arise in early childhood. As a person who still has absolute pitch, I remember always having it. I remembered playing tunes before I learned to speak, and I still have tonal associations (which I discuss on my YouTube Channel), that precede the power of speech. Their associations for me are more deep-seated than words--as if hardwired into my brain.
Indeed, Dr. Treffert, the psychiatrist who wrote extensively about Tom Wiggins and others with such skills, has explored the premise that such skills can exist innately as part of a person's collective unconscious or genetic memory, which he / she can possess at birth--like factory installed software. Disability or limitation in one area of the brain can bring out such innate, hardwired memories--like activating a switch. Indeed, when Tom Wiggins was asked by medical examiners about how he acquired his extraordinary medical abilities as part of a legal dispute in 1865, his response was, "God taught Tom".
Further Reading and Resources
Throughout the text of this blog entry, I included links to relevant pages where I obtained the information I cite in the text. Those interested in further reading concerning Tom Wiggins and others with specialized innate skills can read Darold A. Treffert's book, " Extraordinary People: Understanding Savant Syndrome", published in 2006 by universe. This book is easily accessible and available through Amazon.
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