Wiggins, born blind and enslaved in 1849, seemed of no value to the
Bethunes of Columbus, Georgia, who owned Tom and his mother
Charlotte. When Tom, at age 7, sat down at Colonel Bethune's piano
and played with perfection the music he heard from the family’s
pianists, a "musical prodigy" was born. Popularly known as "Blind
Tom," Wiggins toured the opera houses of the South, including
Alabama's, and he became the first African-American entertainer to
perform in the White House. Tom used piano keys to tell stories and
to translate the events of his time, ranging from everyday
rainstorms to the sweeping Battle of Manassas.
After emancipation, Tom's guardianship and artistic management were
retained by the Bethunes who deprived the autistic pianist of the
large profits that his concerts made. Tom died a pauper in Hoboken,
New Jersey, in 1908, but his legacy survives thanks to his own
achievements and to contemporary pianist John Davis of Brooklyn. For
Trailfest 2015, with public performances and school concerts from
February 22 to 27, 2015, Davis returns the music of "Blind Tom" to
the Alabama towns where the groundbreaking pianist originally
Julliard graduate and Steinway Artist, John Davis has recorded and
released two CDs with Tom's compositions. John Davis plays Blind
Tom became a top-ten seller in classical music on Amazon.com
and the #1 record on the site's Ragtime chart. The music from the CD
inspired Elton John and Bernie Taupin to co-write "The Ballad of
Blind Tom" for John's latest release The Diving Board.
Within the second CD, Halley's Comet, Davis highlights
Tom's compositions with spoken quotes from one of Wiggins's most
vocal fans, Mark Twain.
Thomas Wiggins remains a contemporary force. Current
African-American novelist Jeffrey Renard Allen novelized Tom's life
for Song of the Shank which received a front-page
review in The New York Times Book Review on June 22, 2014.
Tom has been a frequent subject of Alabama writers and historians
including James Haskins and Winston
Smith of Demopolis. For a schedule of public performances, please
visit the Alabama Calendar section of
Primary grant support for the "John Davis plays Blind Tom: Music
as Storytelling" and all performances is provided by the ALABAMA
STATE COUNCIL ON THE ARTS. Additional grant support is provided by
the Alabama Humanities Foundation, a state agency of the National
Endowment for the Humanities (NEH).