By Darold Treffert, MD
“Blind Tom” — Thomas Greene Bethune (sometimes identified as Thomas Wiggins Bethune) — was an internationally recognized musical savant around the time of the civil war, referred to at that time as “the eighth wonder of the world” and “the greatest musical prodigy of the age.” In fact he did become the most celebrated black concert artist of the 19th century. Only recently, however, has his story and fame been resurrected and more widely disseminated. Tom, exactly like Leslie Lemke exactly a century later, was blind and mentally handicapped yet possessed an incredible musical genius that exploded on the scene early in life and then developed into an international presence and reputation. Based on the extensive descriptive accounts from various texts, periodical and newspaper accounts, one can conclude Blind Tom was a prodigious musical savant. At age 11, Tom played at the White House and launched a world tour at age 16. His vocabulary, according to Dr. Edward Sequin who observed and then described Tom in his 1866 textbook on mental deficiency, was less than 100 words but his musical repertoire was over 7000 pieces. In Philadelphia, a panel of 16 outstanding musicians of that day signed this statement about Blind Tom: “Whether in his improvisations of performances of compositions by Gottschalk, Verdi, and others, in fact in every form of musical examination-and the experiments are too numerous to mention-he showed a capacity ranking him among the most wonderful phenomena in musical history.”
The story of this remarkable musical savant begins at a slave auction in 1850 when his mother, Charity Wiggins, was sold as a slave to General James N. Bethune, a prominent lawyer in Columbus, Georgia. Her twelfth (or some accounts say fourteenth) child, born in 1849, was included in the sale “for nothing” because he was completely blind and was thought, therefore, to be of no value. His new master named him Thomas Greene Bethune. On the General’s Georgia plantation, Tom was allowed to roam the rooms of the mansion. He loved nature and was fascinated with sounds of all types-rain on the roof, the grating of corn in the sheller, but most of all music. Tom would listen intensely to the General’s daughters practicing their sonatas and minuets on the piano. “Till 5 or 6 years old he could not speak, scarce walk, and gave no other signs of intelligence than this everlasting thirst for music”, noted Sequin, “but at 4 years already, if taken out from the corner where he lay dejected, and seated at the piano, he would play beautiful tunes; his little hands having already taken possession of the keys, and his wonderful ear of any combination of notes they had once heard.”
There are several versions of the sudden discovery of Tom’s musical talent. According to the families account, one day when the Bethunes had company, one of the daughters entertained them by playing the piano. As she finished playing a difficult selection, lunch was served. After the group sat down to the table, the strains that the Bethune daughter had finished a few minutes earlier came from the supposedly empty parlor. The group rushed in to find the little blind boy, Tom, playing the piano, repeating the difficult piece he had just heard. Another version, cited in a 1957 Music Journal article, tells that before Tom was 4, the Bethunes were aroused from sleep on night by the repetition of piano pieces that the daughters had played earlier in the day. That article also indicates even early in infancy Tom was fascinated and responsive to all sounds, musical and otherwise, which he reproduced even before he could speak and “could sing fine seconds” to anything the family would sing. (all traits and skills of Leslie as well).
Like any slave child, Tom never attended school, and seemed incapable of learning in other areas. He was restless and explosive and required constant supervision. He seemed irresistibly drawn to the piano and without instruction whatsoever could listen to a piece of music and play it through note for note, accent for accent, without error and without interruption. (Just as Leslie Lemke does) At age 5, Tom composed a song he called “The Rain Storm” based on experiencing a thunderstorm that day. Since Tom was able to repeat complex pieces after a single hearing, General Bethune hired professional musicians to play for the child and thus, by simply listening and faithfully reproducing what was just heard, an instant repertoire of concert quality was created.
Word of this “blind genius” spread, and in 1857, at age 8, Tom gave his first concert in Columbus, Georgia. It was a sellout, and the newspapers reports were enthusiastic, so the General and young Tom took to the road on a concert tour, performing almost daily. Tom is said to have earned as much as $100,000 in the first year of giving concerts.
Every note of every piece Tom heard (just as Leslie) was indelibly imprinted on his mind, and he was able to reproduce any piece from beginning to end without a moment’s hesitation. His repertoire included Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Bach, Chopin, Verdi, Rossini, Donitzetti, Meyerbeer and many others. One newspaper account lists his repertoire of over 7,000 pieces and another reported, “His memory is so accurate that he can repeat, without the loss of a syllable, a discourse of 15 minutes length, of which he does not understand a word (again, just as Leslie). Songs, too, in French or German, after a single hearing, he renders not only literally in words, but in notes, style and expression (capabilities I have witnessed in Leslie as well). In addition to this phenomenal memory, Tom usually introduced himself and his pieces in the third person, both frequent accompaniments of savant syndrome with its autistic, or autistic-like features. Detailed descriptions of his concert stage behavior, such as those by Sequin and many others, (too lengthy to repeat here) are also characteristic of savant syndrome.
At age 11, in 1860, Tom played at the White House before President James Buchanan. Several musicians, who felt Tom had tricked the public and the President, tested him at his hotel the following day. They played two completely new compositions. The first, 13 pages in length, Tom repeated from beginning to end without effort or error, and the second, 20 pages in length, he also played to perfection.
In 1862 Tom performed an even more amazing feat. He was asked to play secondo while the composer of a 14 page original piece played treble. This meant he had to improvise the entire secondo part in step with the musician’s execution of the first part. Never having heard the piece before, Tom sat beside the composer and played the first note to the last in secondo part. Following that, he “fairly shoved the man from his seat and proceeded to play the treble with more brilliancy and power that its composer.” A report of that event concludes “to play secondo to music never heard or seen infers the comprehension of the full drift of the symphony in its current—a capacity to create, in short.”
In 1866 Tom began his European tour. At one concert, Tom listened to two pianos hammered nosily and simultaneously while a run of 20 notes was played on a third piano. Tom’s ability to distinguish and reproduce those 20 notes flawlessly appeared to prove his absolute pitch capacity. There were always challenge portions of his concerts (just as with Leslie) where audience members would play pieces Tom had never heard before to see if he could reproduce them accurately, and of course he always did. One such challenge at a Macon Opera House concert is described by a piano teacher who played a “novel selection for the left hand with her right hand behind me.” She assumed Tom, being blind, would “imitate me with both hands according to the piece.” Tom instead “paralyzed us by playing it with his right hand behind him. To this day I am wondering why Blind Tom put his right hand behind him.” At his concerts another favorite feat of his was carrying three different tunes at the same time-playing ‘Yankee Doodle’ in B flat with his right hand, ‘Fisher’s Hornpipe’ in C with his left all the while singing ‘Early in the Morning’.
Following the European tour, Tom again played to capacity audiences in the United States and there are many newspaper accounts of his concerts available as well as concert programs and posters announcing his appearances. A more detailed description of some of these concerts appears in Chapter Two in Extraordinary People. A piece in the New York Times (Sunday, March 5, 2000) recounts in detail some of the later years in Tom’s life and the considerable Bethune family turmoil, much of it settled in rather heated court battles, over Tom’s care and concert proceeds. After the death of General Bethune. One report estimates Tom had earned over $ 750,000 for the Bethune family. After the death of General Bethune, the care of Tom was transferred to General Bethune’s son John. After John’s death in 1883, except for a brief series of concerts in New York in 1904, Tom spent the last 20 years of his life in semi-retirement until his death on June 13, 1908, in Hoboken, New Jersey. He was buried in Evergreen Cemetery in Brooklyn, but a commemorative headstone was raised for him in 1976 in his native town, Columbus, Georgia.
Now, almost a century later, the New York pianist John Davis has professionally recorded 14 of Blind Tom’s original compositions on a CD entitled John Davis Plays Blind Tom (Newport Classics NPD85660). It was released in Winter, 2000 and I am listening to that remarkable collection of pieces as I write this note about Tom. Included are three gallops, a waltz, a polka, two marches and a nocturne. Also included are “The Rainstorm” composed by Tom when he was five years old (reminiscent of Leslie’s “Bird Song”) and “The Battle of Manassas,” Tom’s most famous piece, reconstructing an eyewitness’s account of that Confederate battle complete with notes to imitate cannon shots, troop train whistles and other battle sounds. John Davis states that piece “is one of the great battle pieces of any period.” The score for that piece has a number of sections and notations: “the southern army leaving home to the tune of ‘The Girl I left behind me’; northern army leaving Washington to the tune of ‘Dixie’; the eve of battle; the noise of arms and accoutrements; Gen. Beauregard’s trumpets; Gen. McDowells trumpets ‘Yankee Doodle’ heard through the noise of battle and cannon; ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ indicating the presence of the northern troops; reinforcements arriving under Gen. Kirby Smith; train bringing southern troops; the battle rages more furiously; the northern troops retreat in confusion. It is a marvelous composition.
Mark Twain was intrigued with Blind Tom and frequently, whenever he could, attended many of Tom’s performances. A particularly good summary of Blind Tom, with many pictures and many links to much other material, can be found at: www.twainquotes.com/archangels.html .The site allows one to listen to several of Blind Tom’s original compositions directly. The one song — “Battle of Manassas” — is a Blind Tom ‘classic’ with very intricate, and effective passages depicting that battle. The other pieces are more soothing, but equally as remarkable.
Mark Twain described Tom thus: “He lorded it over the emotions of his audience like an autocrat. He swept them like a storm, with his battle-pieces; he lulled them to rest again with melodies as tender as those we hear in dreams; he gladdened them with others that rippled through the charmed air as happily and cheerily as the riot linnets make in California woods; and now and then he threw in queer imitations of the tuning of discordant harps and fiddles, and the groaning and wheezing of bag pipes, that sent the rapt silence into tempests of laughter. And every time the audience applauded, when a piece was finished, this happy, innocent joined in and clapped his hands, too, with vigorous emphasis.” Twain called Tom an “archangel”.
After Tom’s death a noted Kentucky newspaper editor wrote a touching tribute: “What was he? Whence came he, and wherefore? That there was a soul there, be sure, imprisoned, chained in that little black bosom, released at last.
While separated by a century in years, Blind Tom and Leslie share remarkably similar physical and mental limitations, similar prodigious musical genius and similar life stories with respect to their discovery, the unfolding of that incredible musical genius, and the musical zenith they both reached, each in their own era. Both were musical savants, and musical giants, in their own times. To listen to Leslie Lemke play some of Blind Tom’ pieces, as he now does having listened to them played by John Davis, is a most amazing, reliving, inspiring experience. What a duo Leslie and Tom would make. What inspiring stories they provide. A century apart, Blind Tom and Leslie Lemke are linked timelessly together with their incredibly unique, shared gift of marvelous music.
Sacks, O. (1995). An anthropologist on Mars: Seven paradoxical tales. London: Picador.
Southall, G. H. (2002). Blind Tom, the black pianist-composer (1849-1908): Continually enslaved. Lanham, Md: Scarecrow Press.
Treffert, D. A. (2011). Extraordinary people: Understanding savant syndrome. Lincoln: iUniverse.