Appletons' Cyclopædia of American Biography/Tom

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TOM (known as Blind Tom), musical prodigy, b. near Columbus, Muscogee co., Ga., 25 May, 1849. He is of pure negro blood. His parents were slaves, and called him by the name of a member of their former owner's family, Thomas Greene Bethune. He was born blind, and the only sign of intelligence he gave in infancy was the interest he showed in sounds, such as the cries of animals, the moaning of the wind, the rushing of waters, and the pattering of rain. He could speak at an earlier age than other children, and with greater distinctness; but his words had no meaning for him, and while he was able to repeat entire conversations, he expressed his own wants by inarticulate sounds. When he was four years old a piano was brought to his master's house for the use of the young ladies of the family, and one night they were awakened by hearing him play one of their pieces. This was his first effort, yet he played with both hands, using the black and white keys. After this he was allowed the use of the instrument, and in a short time he was able to render with accuracy all the airs he heard. He also made some essays in original, or rather imitative, composition. He would run about the yard or fields, return to the piano, and, when asked what he was playing, would reply: “What the birds said to me,” or “What the trees said to me.” He has sometimes been compared to Mozart in childhood, but there is no instance recorded in musical history comparable to Blind Tom's attainments in phonetics and the power of reproduction and retention of sound at the same early age. Tom was brought to the north by his master, and made his first appearance in New York, at Hope chapel, 15 Jan., 1861, since which time he has travelled widely in this country and Europe. His musical feats, whether they are the result of mnemonic and imitative powers, or a genius for music, are astonishing. He plays one air with his right hand, accompanies it by another air in another key with his left, and sings a third air in a third key at the same time; and he can name any combination of notes that he hears struck on the piano, no matter how disconnected and puzzling the intervals. Not only can he play from memory any piece of music, however elaborate, after a single hearing, but he imitates the improvisation of another, note by note, then gives his own idea of it, and accompanies that with variations. His capacity for the most difficult musical performances since he was first brought to the north by his master has been subjected to the severest tests. He can only play what he hears or improvises; but he has about 5,000 pieces at the disposal of his memory, embracing the most difficult selections from Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, Gottschalk, and Thalberg. During his performances he indulges in curious antics, and he applauds himself at the end by clapping his hands. He recites with ease in Greek, Latin, French, and German, besides imitating numberless musical instruments and all sorts of sounds. He has partially acquired the power of vision, and can now see a luminous object within a very small space. But while Tom's powers of memory, manual dexterity, and imitative faculties are great, his renderings are devoid of color and individuality.