“Battle of Manassas,” by Tom “Blind Tom” Wiggins

This is Battle of Manassas by Thomas “Blind Tom” Wiggins, circa 1861. It might take two or three listens to “get” this piece, but once you get it, you might find it moving.

Tom Wiggins was black, blind, brilliant, autistic, artistic, and enslaved. His life defies our imagination, yet, there he was, and one of his gifts to us is his piano mashup “Battle of Manassas.”

As told at the website BlindTom.org, Tom was precocious child who defied the term “handicapped”:

Blind Tom was one of the nineteenth century’s most extraordinary performers. An autistic savant with an encyclopedic memory, all-consuming passion for the piano and mind-boggling capacity to replicate – musically and vocally – any sound he heard, his name was a byword for eccentricity and oddball genius.

Blind Tom was born into slavery in Columbus, Georgia in 1848. His master, Wiley Jones, unwilling to clothe and feed a disabled ‘runt’, wanted him dead and, if not for vigilance of his mother, Charity, Tom would not have survived his infancy. But when Tom was nine months old, Wiley Jones put the baby, his two older sisters and parents up for auction, intending to sell the family off individually and not as a unit. The chances of anyone buying blind infant were remote – his death was as good as certain.

Tom’s life was again spared, thanks to the tenacity of his mother. A few weeks before the auction, Charity approached a neighbor, General James Bethune, and begged him to save them from the auction block. At first he refused her, but on the day of the sale, the lawyer and newspaperman turned up at the slave mart and purchased the family.

Apart from his blindness, Tom was ‘just like any other baby’ at first, but a few months after arriving at the Bethune Farm, things began to change and the toddler began to echo the sounds around him. If a rooster crowed, he made the same noise. If a bird sang, he would pursue it or attack his younger siblings just to hear them scream. If left alone in the cabin, he would drag chairs across the floor or bang pans and pots together – anything to make a noise.

By the age of four, Tom could repeat conversations ten minutes in length, but expressed his own needs in whines and tugs. Unless constantly watched, he would escape: to the chicken coop, woods and finally to the piano in his master’s house, the sound of each note causing his young body to tremble in ecstasy. After a string of unwelcome visits, General Bethune finally recognized the stirrings of a musical prodigy in the raggedy slave child and installed him in the Big House where he underwent extensive tuition.

Music saved – and changed – Tom Wiggins’ life. He went on to become a great performer, something akin to the Fats Waller or Liberace of his era. His unlikely combination of blackness, autism, virtuosity, and creativity made for an irresistible combination on the stage. According to one source, he was the first African AMerican to perform at the White House, when he performed for president Patrick Buchanan (who preceded Abraham Lincoln in office).

One of Wiggins’ most memorable performances was “Battle of Manassas.” Dedicated to the July 1861 Confederate victory in Northern Virginia that made Stonewall Jackson famous (it was also known as the Battle of Bull Run), it combined music from several songs and his own unique arrangement and vocalizations to produce a stunning work. As described at Blind Tom.org,

Tom’s impressionistic musical description of the battle pits the harmony of the right hand against the discord of the left. An insistent bass conjures the trudge of marching columns, tonal clusters evoke the roar of cannon and musketry. A brooding soundscape then ducks, weaves and punches its way into a medley of popular and patriotic songs – Yankee Doodle, Dixie, The Star Spangled Banner and Le Marseillaise – discord tugging at the heels of the melody until it finally implodes into the chaos of a harem-scarem finale. “In an age before recorded sound, Blind Tom’s Battle of Manassas was perhaps the only reference point whereby soldiers, citizens and slaves could make sense of the aural assault”, said biographer Deirdre O’Connell, author of The Ballad of Blind Tom.

The song is a fine piece, but it might take several hearings to fully understand the depth and imagination of the piece. What Jimi Hedrix’s Star Spangled Banner was to the young generation of the 1960s and 1970s, Wiggins’ Battle of Manassas was to the Civil War generation. Its stunning, bombastic end properly recalls the boom of war, and then some.

The website BlindTom.org is an excellent way to learn more about Wiggins. This web video gives a quick recap of his life:

Jump Jim Crow

A short video showing images of Thomas Rice as “Jim Crow,” minstrel inspired toys, and clips from minstrel performances. Video features the “Jump Jim Crow” tune. Video created by Office of Diversity and Inclusion in conjunction with the Jim Crow Museum at Ferris State University ( http://www.ferris.edu/jimcrow/ )

The term “Jim Crow” is commonly used to refer to the period of racial segregation that lasted from the end of Reconstruction Era (around 1877) to the 1960s, when judicial decisions, congressional legislation, and executive actions officially ended the practice of separate and equal – a practice which almost always resulted in the separate and disciminatory treatment of African Americans.

But where did the term “Jim Crow” come from? It appears to come from the “blackface” minstrel performer Thomas “Daddy” Rice, who darkened his face with charcoal paste or burnt cork and danced a jig while singing the lyrics to his song, “Jump Jim Crow.”

The Jim Crow Museum website provides some details:

“Come listen all you galls and boys,
I’m going to sing a little song,
My name is Jim Crow.
Weel about and turn about and do jis so,
Eb’ry time I weel about I jump Jim Crow.”

These words are from the song, “Jim Crow,” as it appeared in sheet music written by Thomas Dartmouth “Daddy” Rice. Rice, a struggling “actor” (he did short solo skits between play scenes) at the Park Theater in New York, happened upon a black person singing the above song — some accounts say it was an old black slave who walked with difficulty, others say it was a ragged black stable boy. Whether modeled on an old man or a young boy we will never know, but we know that in 1828 Rice appeared on stage as “Jim Crow” — an exaggerated, highly stereotypical black character.

Rice, a white man, was one of the first performers to wear blackface makeup — his skin was darkened with burnt cork. His Jim Crow song-and-dance routine was an astounding success that took him from Louisville to Cincinnati to Pittsburgh to Philadelphia and finally to New York in 1832. He also performed to great acclaim in London and Dublin. By then “Jim Crow” was a stock character in minstrel shows, along with counterparts Jim Dandy and Zip Coon. Rice’s subsequent blackface characters were Sambos, Coons, and Dandies. White audiences were receptive to the portrayals of blacks as singing, dancing, grinning fools.

By 1838, the term “Jim Crow” was being used as a collective racial epithet for blacks, not as offensive as nigger, but similar to coon or darkie. The popularity of minstrel shows clearly aided the spread of Jim Crow as a racial slur. This use of the term only lasted half a century. By the end of the 19th century, the words Jim Crow were less likely to be used to derisively describe blacks; instead, the phrase Jim Crow was being used to describe laws and customs which oppressed blacks.

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Off Topic: Feeling Like Summertime

It’s been hot during the past few days here in Washington, DC, making everyone think we’ll have an early and long summer.

And that brings to mind the song Summertime from the Gershwin, Heyward, and Gershwin opera Porgy and Bess. This excellent version features Ella Fitzgerald and singer/trumpet player Louis Armstrong. I believe this is from the album Porgy and Bess done by Armstrong and Fitzgerald in 1958.


 
Here’s another great version of the song by DC’s own Billy Stewart:

Uncle Tom’s Cabin on the Big Stage

We commonly think of Uncle Tom’s Cabin as a literary phenomenon. But it was on the big stage that this story had some of its greatest impact.


Uncle Tom at the whipping post
Scene from the stage production of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”
All photos in this post are by Joseph Byron, N.Y., c1901
Source: Library of Congress (click on the link for identification and other information)

In 1860, at the eve of the Civil War, there were 18 free states, where slavery was prohibited. Those states had roughly 18.5 million whites, and 225,000 free blacks. So, only 1% of the free state population was African American. 168,000 of those free blacks lived in just four states: Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, and Ohio. Millions of northern whites saw ‘real live’ black people only a handful of times in their entire lives, if at all. And as unlikely as it was for them to see a black person, it was even less likely that they would ever see a slave.

There was, of course, no radio, television, telephones or Internet. The kind of immediate, in your face journalism that’s enabled by today’s technology did not exist. Slavery was certainly not an uncommon subject for the press, or other forms of paper communication. But for many northerners, the horrors of slavery were out of sight, and would have been out of mind – if not for people like Harriet Beecher Stowe.

The isolation of northern whites from slavery helps to explain the interest in Stowe’s book Uncle Tom’s Cabin; or Life Among the Lowly. The book was published in 1852, following a serialized version in an antislavery newspaper. It opened a window to a world, hidden by distance, that many northern whites never saw or knew.

The book’s negative portrayal of slavery was filled with melodrama and overt religious symbolism and appeals. It was not just a story about the grace and love of little Eva; the abuse of the devout Uncle Tom; the salvation by love of the slave girl Topsy; and the preservation of Eliza’s family. It was, as historian David Goldfield put, “a book about family, God, and redemption-surefire topics to attract a broad audience in mid-nineteenth century America.”


The Auction Scene
Source: Library of Congress (click on the link for identification and other information)

For several years, Uncle Tom’s Cabin was a huge best-seller, second in popularity only to the Bible. It would become an international best-seller as well. Historian James McPherson noted that “within a decade [of its 1852 release] it sold more than two million copies in the United States, making it the best seller of all time in relation to population.”

But Uncle Tom’s Cabin was more than just a literary phenomenon. As mentioned in Wiki,

“Given the lax copyright laws of the time, stage plays based on Uncle Tom’s Cabin—”Tom shows”—began to appear while the story itself was still being serialized… Even though Uncle Tom’s Cabin was the best-selling novel of the 19th century, far more Americans of that time saw the story as a stage play or musical than read the book. Eric Lott, in his book Uncle Tomitudes: Racial Melodrama and Modes of Production, estimates that at least three million people saw these plays, ten times the book’s first-year sales… The many stage variants of Uncle Tom’s Cabin “dominated northern popular culture… for several years” during the 19th century and the plays were still being performed in the early 20th century.”

These stage productions allowed the book to be visualized and dramatized, and touched theater patrons in a way that the written word could not. Now the horrors of slavery had a human face that northern people could see. The resulting ire led Abraham Lincoln to tell Stowe in 1863 – apocryphally, it turns out – “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war!”


Little Eva’s death scene
Source: Library of Congress (click on the link for identification and other information)

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Off Topic Saturday: Peg Leg Stompin’

Back in the old days, they didn’t have these fancy prosthetics and stuff you see nowadays. If a man lost a leg, a piece of wood might have to do for a replacement.

Legend has it that before the Civil War, a sailor named Peg Leg Joe led slaves out of bondage through the Underground Railroad. However, no reliable evidence has been found to prove there was such a person. This mythical Peg Leg is credited with writing the song “Follow the Drinkin’ Gourd”, which supposedly helped guide slaves on their way to freedom.

Another famous Peg Leg, the late Arthur “Peg Leg Sam” Jackson, would probably say that despite the loss of his leg, he wasn’t missing a thing. Although he was from what many would call “humble beginnings” in South Carolina, he became a wonderful blues singer, harp (harmonica) player, and story-teller. As noted here, “When he wasn’t riding the rails, (Sam) worked as an entertainer with a medicine show run by ‘Chief Thundercloud,’ a Potawotomi Indian… Sam was the last country bluesman to tour the U.S. with a medicine show. Back when the blues was mostly a rural genre, many bluesmen connected with these shows. Each was typically run by a ‘doctor’ whose goal was to make money hawking homemade remedies made primarily from alcohol.” In this excerpt from a documentry, Sam tells us a little bit about hard luck:

There’s nothing but good medicine in Sam’s soul-stirring performance of Joshua Fit The Battle Of Jericho, done with help from guitarist Louisiana Red; it’s from Sam’s album “Joshua”:

Perhaps the most famous Peg Leg of them all was the late Clayton “Peg Leg” Bates. Like Peg Leg Sam, Bates was from South Carolina. He lost a leg at the age of 12 in a cotton gin accident. According to wiki, “Bates was a well-known dancer in his day. He performed on The Ed Sullivan Show approximately 58 times, and had two command performances before the King & Queen of the England.” Bates ran the “Peg Leg Bates Country Club” in upstate New York, from 1951 to 1987, his wife. It was one of many segregated vacation spots that took black customers in the days of Jim Crow. My own family visited the Bates Country Club when I was a child.

Nobody could stomp and tap like Peg Leg Bates: