ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT

'The Ballad of Blind Tom, Slave Pianist: America's Lost Musical Genius'

The Ballad of Blind Tom,

Slave Pianist

America's Lost Musical Genius

Deirdre O'Connell

Overlook: 272 pp., $24.95

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. He was afraid of strangers and clung to his guardians. He would slap those who laughed at him and shove women off the piano bench when their playing offended him.

Whooping and sputtering, he would twist his body into knots, standing on one foot and leaning forward, hopping around the room in fits of vigor broken up by somersaults and twirls. He ate with his hands, when he didn't put his face down into his food.

And he was called a genius by those who heard him play the piano. Blind Tom had freakish listening skills and an amazing talent for reproducing what he heard. He could play back complicated music he'd listened to but once; he could translate the external phenomena that transfixed him -- rainstorms, trains, sewing machines -- into impressionistic musical fantasies.

His grandest piece was a re-creation of the Battle of Manassas, which he heard firsthand and translated into piano notes. The piece stirred the senses of audiences who heard Tom play it in the Confederate South. After the Civil War, "The Battle of Manassas" was moved out of his repertory.

Tom went on the road in the prewar South with his master as his roadie. He played minstrel shows and the Barnum circuit with an act that was part musical performance, part oratorical reenactment, and he became perhaps the leading black proponent of the Confederacy.

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, as you can plainly see, is not only a great artist but distinctly non compos mentis," his manager would tell the crowd.

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.

Like all great entertainment, Tom's act provided multiple entry points. His program, packed with nostalgic parlor tunes, was a balm to a frayed republic. The eternal sounds that came from this unsocialized being connected him to the rising culture of spiritualism and séances.

Most of all, his show was seen through the prism of minstrelsy in an America at war over race. O'Connell suggests that Tom was regarded as something of a conjure man to blacks, though the black press' distaste for Tom undermines the claim. To many whites, he was a subhuman putting on airs, and thus a source of merriment. Perhaps his powers at the piano were seen as nonthreatening precisely because he was in a unique category.

In his own life, Tom remained a slave after the institution was abolished. His Georgia master paid off his parents and took him on the road under a legal arrangement that essentially amounted to indentured servitude. He passed into various hands over the next few decades. One of the more powerful parts of O'Connell's book describes how emotional blackmail and isolation kept Tom dependent. Numerous whites (and blacks) fought to control this cash cow.

One important point is buried in a footnote: The author quotes a critic who argues that, as good as Tom was, he was nothing but a mimic, re-creating what he heard. But being a copyist, O'Connell continues, was a frequent criticism waged against African American artists -- how else to explain genius from somebody who was considered not fully human?

Black talent was supposed to "just grow." If blacks were natural musicians, white listeners need not feel bad about enjoying their artistry; it had come from somewhere else. "Throughout his life, Tom's autism was interpreted through prevailing racist stereotypes as incontrovertible 'proof' that the Negro was a natural musician and that Africans were intellectually inferior to Europeans," O'Connell writes.

Yet if Blind Tom was clearly a savant and mimic, there is too much testimony to his inventiveness to leave it at that. He created. His shows, one of his music teachers said, were "by no means mirror[s] of the playing of others. He put in his own expression and exhibited much individuality."

This same teacher noted that when she taught him a piece, he would quickly memorize it, while making his own "additions" to the work. He seemed to improvise aspects of the classical and sheet music he picked up by ear; it would have been fascinating to have heard him react to the rags and nascent jazz that were coming to the fore in his final days.

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.

Smith is the author of "The Great Black Way: L.A. in the 1940s and the Lost African-American Renaissance."

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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