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The Phenomenon of "Blind Tom"

The Most Remarkable Instance of the Operation of the Sub-conscious Mind in Music
New Information Upon the Subject Supplied by “Blind Toms Teacher

The editorial in the October issue of The Etude, entitled “The Dream Mind in Music,” created so much interest and correspondence that the following fresh information upon the case of “Blind Tom” will surely give The Etude readers much to think about.

This information was secured through Mme. Anna Amalie Tutein, who has resided in Philadelphia for many years as a teacher of music. Mme. Tutein is the grand-daughter of a former French Ambassador to Copenhagen and was brought up in Denmark. She is a pupil of Niels Gade, Edmond Neupert and Franz Liszt. She first heard Blind Tom when she was five years of age. Tom was touring Europe at that time under the management of “General” Bethune and was exhibited as a phenomenon. He was then seventeen and had a considerable repertoire.

Before going to Mme. Tutein’s narrative, it may be interesting to recall some of the unusual circumstances surrounding the life of this historical musical freak who has since been the subject for discussion of both psychologists and musicians. According to published accounts, Tom was a little pickaninny thrown in the bargain when General Bethune purchased the boy’s mother at a slave mart in Columbus, Ga.

The boy was taken to the general’s plantation and first attracted attention by crawling to the house whenever the piano was played. According to accounts, he was already blind, and had caused his own blindness by poking sticks in his eyes. He developed a remarkable ability as a mimic and could reproduce in an amusing manner most of the sounds he heard. When music was heard at the Bethune home, the little black child would creep up to the verandah and hide under the rose bushes until the music was over.

At the age of four, he ventured to the piano and commenced to pick out tunes. His master then got one of his daughters to teach Blind Tom. At the age of eight he was exhibited and thereafter he was taken to all parts of the world by his master.

When the young negro reached Louisville, his manager exhibited him before William Henry Palmer. Palmer was an accomplished musician and was better known as “Robert Heller, the Magician.” His showman’s instinct led him to see the possibilities of Blind Tom, in a day when freaks of any kind were valuable assets. Accordingly he spent a great deal of time in coaching Tom in a larger repertoire. Thence, Tom and his master went to Washington, where Colonel Henry Watterson became interested in the youth, and with his Southern enthusiasm, did much to advertise the phenomenon. When Tom died in 1908, Watterson was moved to write the following eloquent account of him:

What Was It?

“What was it? Memory? Yes, it was memory without doubt, but what else? Whence the hand power that enabled him to manipulate the keys, the vocal power that enabled him to imitate the voice? What was he? Whence came he? Was he the prince of the fairy tale, held by the wicked enchantress—nor any beauty, not even the Heaven-born Maid of Melody— to release him? Blind and Black—black even as Erebus—idiocy, the idiocy of mystery, perpetual frenzy, the sole companion of his waking visions and his dreams—whence came he, what was he and wherefore?”

It should be explained that Blind Tom was at that time astonishing people with his vocal imitations quite as much as by his keyboard imitations. His natural voice was a deep “gutteral” bass and his favorite song was Rocked in the Cradle of the Deep. He had, however, a very good tenor voice, from all accounts, and could imitate a soprano with amazing tones. He is reported to have heard many of the leading statesmen in Congress and could thereafter repeat their speeches with the vocal inflexions so accurate that the result

was very ludicrous. At that time he was also reported to have had in his repertoire Thalberg’s Home Sweet Home, some of the Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words and a Liszt Rhapsody. One of his feats was to stand with his back to the piano, play the Fisher’s Hornpipe with one hand and Yankee Doodle with the other while he sang Tramp, Tramp, Tramp, the Boys Are Marching.

Here we will continue with the narrative of Mme. Tutein:—

“When I first heard Blind Tom in Copenhagen, I was too young to retain any definite impression. Negroes were quite rare and a negro was in itself a curiosity for a child—much more so then in Denmark than a Chinaman was in America. I recollect a tall, thin man, very black and very much applauded. I paid little attention to Blind Tom until he came to Philadelphia to give a concert. I had heard of his idiocy and his wonderful ability to reproduce any piece of music he heard.

“The day of his concert was in mid-winter—snowing and raining and in every way disagreeable. I went to the hall clad in rain clothes and rubber boots After his concert the audience was invited to play anything before Tom for test purposes. Several people went up and played little trite pieces of a popular type which Tom readily repeated without difficulty. One sceptical friend induced me to go to the stage and play something really difficult. I played the Third Concerto of Beethoven, in part and found, as I supposed, that it was absolutely impossible for him to repeat it with one playing. This aroused the interest of the Bethune family, who then realized that their protégé would have to have a larger repertoire, if interest in his public work were to be continued. Thereupon I received an invitation to teach Blind Tom daily for the sum of five dollars a lesson, which was then considered a huge fee for musical instruction.

A Difficult Work

“The proposition was a very distasteful one to me, as Tom was himself very repulsive in many ways. At that time (1886) he had grown enormously fat. He was a great gormandizer and ate prodigiously. Moreover he was far from clean. His managers were not at fault for this, as they had an imbecile on their hands and one that fought ferociously when they attempted to have him bathed. It will be seen from this that the beautiful music that came from Tom was not unlike the wild flower that grows in a filthy barnyard. The case interested me very much from the pedagogical and psychological standpoints, particularly after I had learned from his managers that Tom had had in Europe no less a teacher than the great Moscheles himself. The legend that Tom was entirely untaught was fiction. He was taught, but, of course, along entirely different lines. It was more coaching than teaching.

“I must also dispel the idea that Tom could repeat anything after having heard it once. The lessons were two hours in length, and it was often necessary for me to play over the compositions fifty times before he would acquire them. He could, however, remember an astonishing number of measures. I would ‘feed’ him eight on ten measures at a time and then he would play them over several times and we would go on with others. After he had a fair impression of the piece I would play it as an entirety and he would listen intently. In this way I taught him—

Beethoven’s Third Concerto in C Minor.
Liszt’s E Major Polonaise.
Beethoven’s Sonata Apassionata.
Chopin’s Polonaise Op. 53.
Mendelssohn’s Concerto in G Minor, etc., etc.

“It should be remembered that at that time there were only limited means of teaching the blind, and that Tom was also an imbecile. He was not, however,

totally ignorant of all musical relationships, as may have been claimed. He would ask me whether a note was a whole note, a half note, a quarter note, an eighth note, a sixteenth note, etc. He also knew the names of the pitches A, B, C, D, E flat, etc., and had absolute pitch of unfailing accuracy. It was impossible to hold an intelligible conversation with him upon any subject. He spoke mostly in monosyllables. After some experience with him, I came upon a peculiar manifestation of his mental operation that surprised me. If I asked him a question and saw him smile blandly and roll his white, sightless eyes and answer politely “Yes,” I knew that he had not the least idea what I was saying. But if he uttered harsh, hissing sounds like the escaping steam of the locomotive, at the same time apparently undergoing a great emotional and nervous strain, I knew that he understood and that the music I had played had been photographed in that musical camera stored somewhere behind the screen of imbecility.

“When he was not engaged in playing or listening or eating, his favorite pastime was drawing circles with his hands upon the floor. Time and again he would draw circle after circle in a manner that was pathetic. During this he would stand upon one foot. He rarely said anything except what pertained to music. He was a full-blooded Negro. His name was reported to have been Thomas Wiggens.

Blind Tom’s Compositions

Blind Tom’s own compositions and improvisations were astonishingly interesting and often very beautiful. He played a piece called The Rainstorm, which was very suggestive and far from ordinary. His playing was expressive and for the most part very accurate. He never seemed to forget and could play such pieces as the Sonata Pathetique (which he studied in Germany) with surprising skill. His technical exercises were limited to a very few simple things that General Bethune’s daughter had taught him. His playing was by no means a mirroring of the playing of others. He put in his own expression and exhibited much individuality. His octaves were very fine and clear and his great physical strength and elasticity made his playing forceful. It is a great mistake, however, to compare Tom with Franz Liszt. Liszt was, of course, an incomparably finer talent and intellect than Tom and his playing was accordingly finer. Tom, however, did play well and even better than many white contemporary pianists who made great pretentions and who took years to learn what Tom could learn in a few hours.

“How amazing this phenomenon was may be judged by the following fact that I could not myself believe possible if it had not been performed before my own eyes with a piece that I had taught him myself. When I had finished teaching him the solo part of the Beethoven Third Concerto, he amazed me by turning his back to the keyboard and playing the entire Concerto standing in that position. In other words, his right hand played the left hand part and his left hand played the right hand part.

“In his day, people regarded Tom merely as a great freak, as he indeed was. Nowadays, people realize that his case was principally interesting because it was a marvelous manifestation of the sub-conscious or dream mind as differentiated from the conscious mind. Tom’s mind, that is, his conscious mind, was just about sufficient to remove him one step from the helpless imbecile who has to be fed and cared for. I have told of the great struggle to keep him clean. He was indeed removed only a few degrees from the animal, in that he could talk (in a very circumscribed fashion), could laugh and cry, and could do some of the other things which human beings train themselves to do. When this is said, his control of his body through his conscious mind has been defined. Now we come to that other mind—the diamond in the swine’s mire. That it was something quite different from his conscious mind is shown by those strange indications of receptivity manifested by strange hissing sounds when his sub-conscious mind was working. This, according to reports, occurred from his earliest childhood. Stored up in that mind were many of the greatest treasures of music. It was also creative, in a limited and somewhat pathetic degree. That is, Blind Tom could compose. His compositions did not represent great masterpieces of harmony, form or counterpoint, but they indicated a desire to make new musical combinations. For the most part they were improvisations, and as far as my own quite extensive familiarity with musical literature goes, very original. He would play for hours at a time, occasionally one of the great masterpieces, and then going off into his interesting improvisations. That Tom knew the compositions he played by name, and could play them at command, indicates another form of intelligence with which he should be credited. But it was a kind of intelligence like that of putting a new record on a talking machine.

“Tom is gone and his music with him. His case now is in the annals of the psychologist rather than in musical history. He showed, however, how seriously the teacher should regard all music that the child is permitted to hear. Probably all of us have sub-conscious musical minds and are recording impressions without knowing it. These subtle influences may be as powerful as those we receive in our conscious minds. This points to the great value of good concerts and plenty of them, the use of much good playing at the lesson hour and the value of the sound-reproducing machine.”


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