Monday, April 6, 2015

Blind Tom and "The Battle of Manassas"

The museum is fortunate to possess a large collection of piano music belonging to Frances Glessner.  She was an accomplished pianist by an early age, continued to actively play throughout her lifetime, and especially enjoyed four hand arrangements which she played with her friends.  Many of the pieces bear the name “Frances Macbeth” on the covers, indicating that they were acquired prior to her marriage in 1870.  This week, in commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War on April 9, 1865, we will look at the story behind one of these pieces of music entitled “The Battle of Manassas,” composed by Blind Tom.

The First Battle of Bull Run, popularly known as First Manassas by the Confederates, was fought on July 21, 1861 near Manassas, Virginia, not far from Washington, D.C.  It was the first major battle of the Civil War, engaging approximately 18,000 troops on both the Union and Confederate sides.  As it was the first significant battle, the troops had received little training.  In the end, the Confederate forces were victorious, and the Union troops hastily retreated toward Washington, D.C.  But it was a sobering moment for both sides, who were shocked by the large numbers of casualties and the realization that the war would not be quickly won.  An interesting side note is that during the battle, troops serving under the Confederate Brigadier General Thomas J. Jackson were noted for standing their ground, earning the general the now famous nickname of “Stonewall Jackson.” 

Blind Tom Wiggins was an extraordinary musician and during the mid- to late-19th century was one of the greatest musical sensations of his age.  He was born into slavery in 1848 in Georgia, and being blind at birth, was considered worthless by his master.  Were it not for the fact that soon after, his entire family was sold to another plantation, the story could have ended there.  After the family was purchased by General James Bethune, Tom began to exhibit interesting behavior, mimicking the sounds he would hear around him from a crowing rooster to the sound of rain on the roof.  By the time he was four, he was sneaking into the music room of General Bethune’s home to play the piano.  The general realized the musical gifts of the young boy and moved him into the main house to nurture his talent.  He began performing publicly by the age of six.

One of his amazing abilities was to repeat compositions exactly, after hearing them just one time.  By the end of his career, it was estimated that he could play nearly 7,000 pieces from memory.  Being a blind slave in the 1850s South, Blind Tom was promoted in freak shows rather than great concert halls.  His promoter called him “a gorgon with angel’s wings,” a reference to Tom’s transformation from an awkward twitching young boy once he started to play the piano.  His fame spread and he was invited to play for President James Buchanan, becoming the first African-American musician to officially perform in the White House.   

As the Civil War began to rage, the sounds of war fascinating Blind Tom – from the drum and fife to the boom of the cannons.  Recreating these sounds on the piano, he wrote what would become his most famous composition, The Battle of Manassas, published in 1862 when he was just fourteen years old.  Incorporating bits and pieces of several well known melodies used by both the Confederate and Union troops, the song, with its ingenious improvisations, accurately depicted each part of the battle from the approaching troops through the heat of battle and the victory and retreat.  Audiences were mesmerized by the music, and throughout the remainder of his career, Blind Tom would play the piece at every performance.

Final page of The Battle of Manassas

Following the Civil War, Blind Tom spent many years on the road performing all across the United States, Canada, and Europe.  One of his most amazing feats involved playing one piece with his right hand, a second entirely different piece (in a different key) with his left hand, while singing a third piece (in yet another key), all of them perfectly performed.  After amazing his audiences, he would do it again, this time with his back to the piano!  Mark Twain had the opportunity to ride a train from Galena to Chicago with Blind Tom once, later writing how Tom accurately repeated the sounds of the train during the entire journey. 

During these years, Blind Tom was exploited by his promoters and guardians, and eventually became known as the “Last American Slave.”  In his mid-twenties, he was judged to be insane, and his earnings (estimated at several million dollars today) were given to General Bethune to support his own lifestyle.  After the General’s death in 1884, there was a battle for control of Tom’s earnings, with his daughter-in-law ultimately winning custody.  During the 1890s he no longer performed, many believing he had died in the Johnstown Flood of 1889.  But he did make a brief reappearance on the vaudeville stage in the early 1900s.

Blind Tom died from a stroke in 1908 and was buried in an unmarked grave in Brooklyn’s Evergreen Cemetery.  Today a plaque marks the burial place of this extraordinary genius.  In recent years, Blind Tom has been the subject of a comprehensive biography, The Ballad of Blind Tom, published by author Deirdre O’Connell in 2009, and a documentary by Andre T. Regan entitled The Last Legal Slave in America. 

For more information on Blind Tom and his music visit the website  To hear a performance of “TheBattle of Manassas” click here.  

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