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Review of a Blind Tom Concert from The Sword and Pen, December 12, 1881

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The Sword and the Pen, "complete in ten numbers," edited by Horace P. Chandler, was published in Boston, December 7 to 17, 1881, for the Soldiers' Home Bazaar. The December 12, 1881 issue featured an article by H. E. Scudder titled "A Leaf from my Notebook" dated 5 May, 1866 which gives a first-hand report on one of Blind Tom's concerts.


SATURDAY, 5 May, 1866. -- Went this afternoon to the Tremont Temple to see and hear Blind Tom, who was advertised as a musical phenomenon. Three hundred people, perhaps, were present, and I took a front seat where I could see Tom distinctly. He was led in by a showman, -- a good-natured, lazy man, with one of his waist-buttons gone, -- and, being placed in the middle of the platform, before the audience, was left to himself. He made a bow, and began at once, on a high key, and on a monotonous level, to recite a little speech, given in the third person, as if he were the showman, and the real showman, leaning against the piano, and looking on, was Tom. He spoke of "this boy Tom" as blind, and a mere creature of music, and ended by saying, "He will now play selections from the opera of 'Lucrezia Borgia;' " whereupon, dropping the showman, and resuming his proper character, he sat down at the piano, and played some airs from the opera, following the Hoffmann's "Auld Lang Syne," "The Mocking-Bird," Thalberg's "Lily Dale," and a song called "The Old Sexton." His playing was rude in general, but quite effective by a sort of wild pathos which he threw into it. He liked noise in his music, and imitative sounds. When he sang, there was something unearthly in his voice, as if he were some strange animal singing he only dimly guessed what. I could not tell whether he was listening to his music or not; but at times, especially in the fainter and more plaintive passages, he would bend his ear down as if the piano were speaking to him, and a sort of horrid grin would work round his mouth. Then he would throw his head back, lifting his sightless eyeballs, and, except for the evident half-idiocy of the expression, one would take it to be a ludicrous affectation of rapture. He muttered very often as he played, talking to himself; perhaps he was accompanying the piano.

Between the pieces, the showman entertained us with some little comment on Tom, who stood by himself on the stage, and seemed in a nervous excitement. He would suddenly clap his fingers to his ears, as if some sound offended him, and again feel the ends of his fingers in a wondering kind of way, as if he thought the music which he had been giving was still on the tips, and could be rubbed off. He always applauded himself when he rose from the piano, generally following the lead of the audience. As soon as he had finished a piece he would sidle up to the showman, and tip his head toward him to catch instructions as to what he was to do next.

He performed some musical feats, as giving "The Fisher's Hornpipe" with his right hand, "Yankee Doodle" with his left, and singing "Tramp, Tramp, Tramp," all at once. Then he reversed the method, changing his hands. He gave us a piece of his own composition, being what the Wind, Thunder, and Rain said to Tom, suggested -- so the showman told us -- by some fearful storm which had had been in. All the while he played he was rolling his tongue about in his mouth, much as a little boy does who is learning to write. He seemed to like best the tum-tum endings, and in his own pieces gave them whenever he could. The showman tried him on pitch notes, striking a note which Tom's voice would repeat; and he told us that he had taught Tom to spell, after a fashion, by music. He called for a gentleman to hold up some object, Tom being at the end of the platform, with his back to us, -- an apparently needless precaution, if he were as blind as he professed to be. I held up my watch; the man struck the notes in a peculiar way, and Tom spelled correctly. A cane was held up, and some other pieces. I did not catch the man's method. Tom also spelled words which were given out by persons in the audience, -- spelling in a phonetic fashion, and calling out the letters loudly. Physiology was offered, and Tom, taking the word up rushed off in a frantic, bewildered manner, with f-i-l, fil, l-i, li, o-z, oz, fillioz, z-y, filliozzy, g-y, filliozogy. Hieroglyphic was given. He took breath, then attacked it vehemently, but got most inextricably involved, making it impossible to follow him as he wandered among the h's and g's and l's and y's and x's.

One of the remarkable points about Tom, said the showman, was his power to imitate music at once, repeating a long and intricate passage, after hearing another play it for the first time. He had been disappointed in obtaining some distinguished musician whom he had invited; but he had asked Mr. Sam Johnson, a colored man, nearly blind, who had been instructed in music at the Blind Asylum, to be present, and he would play a piece which Tom had never heard. Sam had been sitting near me, -- a droll-looking darky, whose face was occasionally irradiated with a smile at some of Tom's eccentricities, -- and he now felt his way to the platform, and sat down at the piano to play. Tom began to act in an extraordinary manner, coming to the piano with the singular ghastly smile which I had noticed before, and nosing round Sam like a dog. Pretty soon, however, he sauntered off on the platform, and, after a few antics, stood on one foot, and, throwing his body forward, and extending his arms, began to spin round like a teetotum. He kept up a rhythmic motion, swaying his body up and down, and spinning round faster and faster, -- his other leg being extended in a straight line, like a steering apparatus. He must have spun nearly two minutes, when he stood upright again, apparently without any exhaustion, and sauntered to the piano, standing by it, and beating his thigh with his palm, in a sort of regular, time-keeping motion. Mr. Johnson had now completed his task, and Tom took his place to copy him. I am not quite sure of my ears; but I should say that the copy was not exact, but a sort of general repetition of the theme. It was an unmeaning sort of piece, with nothing calculated to arrest the attention. Sam next took his seat, and played on of two chords at a time, which Tom would analyze, giving the separate notes. Sam -- whose face wore a blank wonderment -- came forward, at the showman's request, to address the audience, and tell them that Tom had read the chords rightly. He was in a speech-making vein, however, and began to wax eloquent on the subject of blind men, and the general right of people to earn their daily bread anywhere on the fact of God's earth. The showman quieted him, and got him off the stage, and afterward -- which I thought very good-natured -- made a little explanatory speech, expressing his regret that the limited time would not allow Mr. Johnson to extend his remarks. He himself gave an account of Tom, explaining what he could, but candidly confessing his inability to account for all his movements. All noises, he said, seemed to afford Tom exquisite delight, even those produced by pain and suffering. He had once uttered a sharp cry when Tom, in coming upon the platform, stepped upon his foot, and it afforded Tom such delight that he chuckled over it for a couple of hours. Indeed, he said, Tom was perpetually in a state of enjoyment, so far as he could see, living in the present, and wholly regardless of the future. Tom all this while was amusing himself with spinning about, playing with his fingers, making disagreeable noises with his nose, and clapping his hands sometimes behind his ears, as if he heard some divine music in the distance. "He sometimes," said the showman, "used singular expressions, and asked unaccountable questions, as when he insisted upon it that thee was a lady in the audience playing on a fly. That happened several times, and once a lady humored him, and sent him a musical box as the fly. He was delighted with it, and kept it at his ear constantly." Tom now sat down again, and imitated the music-box. It was done very well, and was more pleasing than many other parts of the performance; for he seemed to listen to it quietly, and with a happy expression, more gentle in his manner.

The last performance was a composition of his own, -- his idea of the battle of Manasses, which he had heard much described and discussed. He played this with great gusto, announcing the various headings in a loud manner, which came very absurdly into the piece: The Northern troops, marching to the tune of "The Girl I Left Behind Me;" the Southern coming up, to the tune of "Dixie." The eve of battle, -- a quiet passage. Trumpets calling. McDowell's march. Cannon sounding, amidst strains of "Yankee Doodle" and "The Marsellaise Hymn," "The Star-spangled Banner" and "Dixie." Re-enforcements for Beauregard. "Che!" "Che!" "Che!" went Tom's mouth, then a re-r-r-r for the whistle, and the same repeated; cannon banging all the while, in a delightfully noisy manner. "Retreat!" "Retreat!" "Retreat!" cried Tom, away flew the notes, and there was a general harum-scarum close.


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