He Was Born Into Slavery, but Achieved Musical Stardom

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tags: African American history, music

Charity Wiggins, a slave on a Georgia plantation, was 48 in May 1849, when she gave birth to a baby boy.

The child, whom she named Thomas, was born blind, and Charity feared that their owner would deem him a useless burden — with potentially dire consequences. Sure enough, before long Charity’s family — of five, at the time — was put up for sale to settle some of the owner’s debts.

Charity made a bold plea to Gen. James Neil Bethune, a fiercely pro-slavery lawyer and newspaper editor in Columbus, Ga., to keep her family together; probably out of pity, he agreed and bought them. He could not have imagined that acquiring the Wiggins slaves would make him a fortune.

For within a decade, Charity’s son had become a touring musical phenomenon, reportedly earning up to $100,000 a year, well over $1 million today and enough to make him among the best compensated performing artists of his time. Under the stage name “Blind Tom” Wiggins, he played his own compositions and improvised on the piano, demonstrating uncanny skills at replicating, note for note, pieces he heard — both classical works and popular songs.

One of his tricks involved playing “Fisher’s Hornpipe” with one hand and “Yankee Doodle” with the other, while singing “Dixie.” He could repeat political speeches he had heard months before, mimicking the vocal cadences of the speaker, even in foreign languages unknown to him.

There are countless testimonies to his fathomless skills, even if they often reek of paternalistic or white supremacist attitudes. During a tour to Europe when Wiggins was 16, he won praise from major musicians. The composer and pianist Ignaz Moscheles deemed him a “singular and inexplicable phenomenon.” The Norwegian violinist Ole Bull, though insisting that Wiggins was no prodigy in the traditional sense, described him as a “marvelous freak of nature.” Mark Twain followed Wiggins’s career for years.

Though his talents were astonishing, Wiggins’s concerts became outlandish spectacles. He had a habit of gyrating and moving his body spasmodically while performing, and even while being promoted as the “Wonder of the World,” many described him as an “idiot,” even an “imbecile.” (It is possible that he was on the autism spectrum.)

Very little of his enormous earnings went directly to him. Gen. Bethune signed a contract with an ambitious promoter. After emancipation, Wiggins remained essentially an indentured servant to Bethune, who eventually became Wiggins legal guardian.

Read entire article at New York Times

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