“Blind Tom” and the Battle of Manassas

11 03 2009

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Researching anything can take you to some pretty cool places, literally and figuratively.  Thanks to reader Deirdre O’Connell, I’ve  been taken to the world of 19th century music, slavery, “black Confederates” and physical/mental handicap all rolled into the husky package known as “Blind Tom” Wiggins.  I can’t vouch for his story, but will defer to Deirdre who has written this book on the savant:

Dear Harry,

I would like to share with you a bit of Bull Run history that I uncovered when I was writing my book, The Ballad of Blind Tom. It is a biography of the slave pianist and autistic savant, Blind Tom Wiggins, who heard a symphony in the battlefield and music in the ocean’s waves.

As you may be aware, Blind Tom’s most famous composition was The Battle of Manassas, which he composed when just a lad of fourteen. The first page of the sheet music details how the composition came about. Shortly after the battle – it read – Tom’s manager, Perry Oliver, was laid up in bed recuperatingfrom injury. Tom was often in the room with him, listening as every detail of the battle was scrutinized. Ten days later, he sat down at the piano and poured out his famous battle-piece, “The Battle of Manassas”.

“In the first place [reads the sheet music notes] he will represent the Southern army leaving home to their favorite tune of The Girl I Left Behind Me which you will hear in the distance, growing louder and louder as they approach Manassas (the imitation of the drum and fife). He will represent the Grand Union Army leaving Washington City to the tune of Dixie. You will all recollect that their prisoners spoke of the fact that when the Grand Union Army left Washington, not only were their bands playing Dixie, but their men were also singing it.

He will represent the eve of battle by a very soft sweet melody, then the clatter of arms and accoutrements, the war trumpet of Beauregard, which you will hear distinctly; and then McDowell’s in the distance, like an echo at first. He will represent the firing of cannons to Yankee Doodle, Marseilles Hymn and the Star Spangled Banner, Dixie and the arrival of the train of cars containing General Kirby Smith’s reinforcements; which you will all recollect was very valuable to General Beauregard upon that occasion after their arrival of which, the fighting will grow more severe and then retreat.”

On closer examination, the story does  not hold up to scrutiny and in my new book, The Ballad of Blind Tom, I argue that Tom’s Battle of Manassas was less an act of spontaneous loyalty and more publicity stunt dreamed up by his manager – an act of musical revenge against New Orleans piano virtuoso Louis Gottschalk for turning his back on the Confederacy and composing his blood-stirring battle-piece L’Union.

However the battlefield sound-scapethat Tom conjured up on the piano (with a few vocal effects thrown in) was so jaw-droppingly accurate that it cut through this manager’s propaganda. As the rebellion dragged on, Tom’s wild and discordant echo of battlefield – unfiltered by judgment or curiosity – became less a patriotic rouser and more a heart wrenching reminder of the tragedy that is war.

‘Many times I have heard my mother tell of hearing Blind Tom in concert at Chattanooga [one Georgia woman reported in 1942]. ‘She well knew the sounds of war and many of its horrors and indelibly impressed upon her memory was the sounds of an army on the march, as they passed her house for days at a time. So what impressed her most about this Negro artist-genius was his faithful reproduction of the “tramp tramp tramp” of marching men, the rumble of artillery field pieces and the hoof beats (all gaits) of the horses attached to the cavalry units – all of which was too perfect for enjoyment, but a miracle of performance. She thought this proved his genius more than anything else he did and she never saw a musician who could reproduce those sounds except Blind Tom.’

I hope you enjoyed this slice of Bull Run history. If you want to read more about Blind Tom, listen to a selection of his compositions or download the sheet music, check out my website.

Best wishes,

Deirdre O’Connell








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