Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Uncle Zeke & Orlando Folks See and Hear Blind Tom

In his Buzzardtown News column for March 2, 1933, Uncle Zeke noted that the previous week’s Braxton Central newspaper had a feature labeled, “Forty Years Ago This Week.” The feature contained a story about a special train which went to Weston for a performance ofBlind Tom” in 1893. Uncle Zeke would have been 26 at the time.

to the right is Uncle Zeke about the time he wrote these comments.

Uncle Zeke, upon reading of the forty year old memory revived by the Braxton Central news column, exclaimed:

“Well, I happened to be on that special train from Orlando [with about thirty persons] that same time. I remember it well. It [the Forty Years Ago This Week news column] also spoke of the gorgeous illumination of the heavens caused by a display of aurora which I remember as distinctly as if it had been yester-night. Blind Tom was one of the greatest mimickers and musicians I ever saw. He could imitate any sound he ever heard. He also played ‘Yankee-doodle’ and ‘The Girl I Left Behind’ on the piano both at one and the same time. Blind Tom was a colored man and made friends wherever he went. Yes, I saw and heard Blind Tom.”

Blind Tom's Life
“Blind Tom” was born into slavery in 1849 in Georgia and was handicapped, or blessed, depending on the outlook, as an “autistic savant.” Although blind and of limited intelligence, Thomas Bethune, or “Blind Tom” as he was known, had the uncanny and medically mysterious ability to mimic sounds orally and reproduce them at the piano. This ability became known when “Blind Tom” was just a boy and still a slave. His master, James Bethune, arranged musical tours during the mid 1800s during which “Blind Tom” performed his amazing feats of mimicry at the piano. It is said that “Blind Tom” could play over 7000 piano pieces and could play newly composed pieces, and to his ears unheard, music perfectly the first time he heard them. “Blind Tom” traveled all over the United States demonstrating his musical abilities until his death in 1908 at the age of fifty-nine.

Excusion Trains
In the early years of railroads in West Virginia, the railroad companies were very accommodating in arranging special excursion trains for the citizenry to take in special events such as the performance of Blind Tom at Weston. Trains could be arranged to take entire church memberships on outings to picnic spots miles away, such as from Burnsville to Frenchton, which were frequently arranged in the early 1900s. Special trains for baseball fans would go to Pittsburgh or Cincinnati during the summer baseball seasons. Special trains also were arranged for other sporting events or to attend popular carnivals visiting in neighboring towns.

Below are sheet music covers for three of Blind Tom Wiggins' compositions. Click on a cover to hear the tune performed by John Davis.

to the left: Pianist and Jazz great John Davis who recorded the above tune. They are from Davis' album John Davis Plays Blind Tom: The Eighth Wonder - done in 2002.

Click on his photo to see a 1995 video of John Davis in concert.

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