Behind the Keys – Who Was Blind Tom?
By Lee Pons
An 1860's advertisement for Blind Tom, describing him as a "musical prodigy" and "the most marvelous musical genius living!"
This time in our Behind The Keys series, we’re going to discuss someone you might not have heard of before. Though his music wasn’t really Blues, it was “Blues-ish”, and he is an important, though mostly forgotten, figure in the history of Piano Blues. Blind Tom was one of the 19th century’s most extraordinary performers. A autistic savant with an encyclopedic memory, all-consuming passion for the piano, and mind-boggling capacity to replicate – musically and vocally – any sound he heard, his name was a byword for eccentricity and oddball genius.
Blind Tom was born into slavery in Columbus, Georgia in 1848. His master, Wiley Jones, didn’t want to clothe and feed a disabled ‘runt’; he actually wanted him dead and, if not for cries and pleas of his mother, Charity, Tom would not have lived past his infancy. But when Tom was 9 months old, Wiley Jones put the baby, his two older sisters and parents up for auction, intending to sell the family off individually and not as a unit. The chances of anyone buying blind infant were slim, and his death was as good as certain.
Tom’s life was again spared, thanks to his mother. Not long before the auction, she begged a neighbor, General James Bethune, to save them from the auction block. At first he refused, but on the day of the sale, for reasons unknown, the newspaperman/lawyer showed up at the slave mart and purchased the family. Except for his blindness, Tom was just like any other baby at first, but very soon after arriving at Bethune Farm, things changed and the toddler began to echo the sounds around him. If a rooster crowed, he would actually make the same noise. If a bird sang, he would follow it, or attack his younger brothers and sisters just to hear them scream. If he was left alone in the cabin, he would drag chairs across the floor or bang pans and pots together – do anything just to make a noise.
By the time he was 4, Tom could repeat whole conversations 10 minutes in length, but could only express his own needs in cries and tugs. Unless watched, he would escape: to the chicken coop, woods and finally to the piano inside his master’s house, the sound of each note causing his young body to shake with excitement. After a few of these unwelcome visits, General Bethune finally recognized the stirrings of a young musical prodigy in the raggedy slave child and brought him into the “Big House”, where he was given extensive lessons.
By 6 years old, Tom was performing to sold out houses throughout Georgia. His early managers promoted him as a “untutored, natural musician – fully formed from the moment he first touched the piano.” Tom could repeat any composition, no matter how difficult, after a single hearing.