Monday, March 30, 2009
THE BALLAD OF BLIND TOM Reviewed in The Guardian
Deirdre O'Connell's The Ballad of Blind Tom, Slave Pianist is reviewed in The Guardian: "The musical genius of Thomas Wiggins was feted by Mark Twain and Willa Cather during his lifetime, by Dizzy Gillespie after his death, and mimicked by countless impersonators. He was the first African-American ever to perform at the White House. Yet he has since faded into obscurity. A footnote in the 1920 edition of The Encyclopedia of Aberrations ambivalently remembers him as "moronic genius". Tom was somewhere between the 12th and 21st child born to Charity Wiggins on a Georgia plantation in 1849. Although he was blind and his behaviour wildly erratic (bearing many signals of early infant autism), his talent for memorising and reproducing sounds was soon discovered by his owner's family, and before long he had become the "eighth wonder of the plantation". For the rest of his life, he would be bought and sold by different masters and toured around concert venues and freak shows. Tom's extraordinary ability to mimic noise, be it thunderstorms, trains or, to great comic effect, the posturing of the country's leading politicians, was the key to his formidable skill as a pianist and singer. But his talent also isolated him. Utterly lacking in empathy, unable to understand anything but sound, he took what his masters told him at face value. In turn, he fed the white myth of the Negro as a "natural musician", possessing an innate connection to nature's rhythms, "untrammelled by art or any degree of affectation." It's a story full of contradictions and confusion. According to 19th-century white planter ideology, Tom was "sub-human"; according to African-American folklore, he was a "spirit child" blessed with the gift of "second sight"; according to more recent interpretations, he was an autistic savant. The greatest strength of this book is that it sides with none of these views. Instead, O'Connell embraces all "the holes, contradictions, outright lies and distortions and the tiny nuggets of truth" and reimagines the cacophony Tom might have heard in the turbulent world that surrounded him."