Monday, February 02, 2009
THE BALLAD OF BLIND TOM, SLAVE PIANIST Reviewed in LA Times
The Ballad of Blind Tom, Slave Pianist is reviewed in The Los Angeles Times by R.J. Smith: "The name Blind Tom means nothing today, but in Civil War-era America, he was one of the greatest music stars going. Sightless, African American, he was born into slavery and was probably autistic. . . The question is: was he responsible for what he did? And was he responsible for what he made listeners feel? Both Mark Twain and Willa Cather testified to his talent as a musician. Tom's is a story with bottomless complexity, touching on race and sanity and slavery and art. But ultimately, his life makes us think about what it means to be human. Such material is catnip for a theory-driven writer. Thankfully, Deirdre O'Connell isn't one. In The Ballad of Blind Tom, Slave Pianist she lays bare the ambiguities and leaves most of them at that. Few books ask as many questions, yet while too many questions can leave us begging for resolution, O'Connell mostly gets out of the way. She airs the unknowable stuff -- but then gets on to the next chapter of this all-but-forgotten mystery man's brilliant career. . . We'll never know what Blind Tom really sounded like; he died in 1908, just as recording was beginning to emerge. Tom had been thought dead before; in 1889, he was erroneously reported as a casualty of the Johnstown flood. When he was put in the ground 19 years later, there were those who argued the body was not his. As O'Connell notes, he might be buried in Brooklyn, or maybe Columbus, Ga. In either case, the questions live on."