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Arts & Culture

Challenging Traditions With Piano Music By 19th Century African Americans

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"Blind Tom" Wiggins's (pictured) music is being performed today by pianist John Davis.

Known as “Blind Tom,” Thomas Wiggins was a slave from Columbus, Georgia. He was born with a condition that today might be diagnosed as autism. Blind Tom was also a musical prodigy, as a pianist and composer, and was referred to as the greatest pianist of his age.

Click on the play button above to hear an excerpt of a piece written by Wiggins in the 1860s.

Compositions by Blind Tom and others will be part of theatrical concert later this week in Stonington, Connecticut by pianist John Davis. He’ll present a multi-media piano recital with projected video images and plenty of conversation.  

Davis has spent his career uncovering music by 19th century African American pianists whose works later influenced the development of ragtime and early jazz.

I spoke earlier this week with John Davis. He said that when he first began tracking down sheet music of the era, he learned that a piece by Blind Tom was in the Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center.

John Davis: And I went straight over there, and they handed me this gorgeous piece of sheet music with an amazingly elegant image of the pianist on the cover. And I sat down on this electronic instrument in the middle of the reading room, put on headphones, and started to sort of sight-read the piece. And then eventually it led me to other archives, where I found maybe 30 pieces attributed to Blind Tom.

And then another book I read always talked about another pianist in connection to Bind Tom, a person named Blind Boone, who was another sightless pianist, but from Missouri, who modeled his early career on Blind Tom’s.

And in one trip to the Library of Congress, I uncovered another 30 or so pieces by Blind Boone. These pieces all sort of distinguish themselves from a lot of other 19th century, what you call “salon music,” in that all the expression marks and the virtuosity implied in the notes on the page, imply that these were really meant to be played by very good amateur pianists and professional pianists, and said a lot about the people who composed them as well.

WNPR's Diane Orson: This music really represents an important juncture between white and black culture in the U.S. at that time. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Yes, not only an amalgam of white and black culture, but they’re also an amalgam of low and high culture as well. And I think one reason some of this music was forgotten was that at a certain point in the 19th century, high and low culture were separated from one another.

Early on, these things went hand in hand, but at a certain point in the United States, due to certain people advocating for this, people said, “Oh no. You can’t put these two things together. We need to have high-level concerts with European music.” And part of that was also white and black culture, all the assumptions people made about black culture.

So yes, it was an amalgamation of a number of conflicting forces.

So you have devoted your career to drawing attention to a period of essentially early-American roots music.

Yes, this is sort of a forgotten stream in American roots music because it was associated with people who were thought of mostly as classical performers, but they were drawing constantly on vernacular culture to create a unique kind of music that was influenced by classical music but it had its own identity and eventually led to the formation of ragtime and early jazz and much of rhythm and blues and even rock 'n roll.

Diane Orson is a special correspondent with Connecticut Public. She is a longtime reporter and contributor to National Public Radio. Her stories have been heard on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition and Here And Now. Diane spent seven years as CT Public Radio's local host for Morning Edition.

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