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: