BACKGROUND: Tom was born in Muscogee County (ear Columbus, GA) on May 25, 1849 with a condition that today's doctors might diagnose with the politically correct term "autistic savant"--one of only about 100 cases recorded in medical history. Tom's father Domingo Wiggins, a field slave, and his mother Charity Greene were purchased at auction by James Bethune of Columbus, Georgia when Tom was an infant. Domingo and Charity's former master thought the blind sickly "pickaninny" had no labor potential and he was thrown into the sale as a no cost extra. Although Tom's parents were married, the prevailing custom of the time dictated that female slaves and their children retain the names of their owners. Following slavery tradition, Tom received the name Thomas Greene Bethune. By age of six Tom started improvising on the piano and creating his own musical compositions. He claimed the wind, or the rain, or the birds had taught him the melody. Even though a local music teacher told Bethune that Tom's musical abilities were beyond comprehension and his best course of action was simply to let him hear fine playing, Bethune provided Tom with various music instructors. One of Tom's music teachers later reported that Tom could learn skills in a few hours that required other musicians years to perfect. In October 1857, General Bethune rented a concert hall in Columbus and for the first time "Blind Tom" performed before a large audience that had difficulty comprehending how a blind idiotic slave child could master the piano keyboard. Slaves with musical talent meant income for their owners and in 1858 James Bethune "hired out" Tom to concert promoter Perry Oliver for a period of several years. It has been estimated that Bethune pocketed $15,000 from the arrangement and that Perry Oliver made profits amounting to $50,000. Tom, now age nine, was separated from his family and exhibited throughout hundreds of cities on a rigorous four-shows-per-day schedule. Not only could Tom perform world classics, he would astound his audiences by turning his back to the piano and giving an exact repetition--a reversal of the keys the left and right hands played. Musicians in the audience were invited to challenge Tom to a musical duel. Tom could successfully reproduce on the keyboard any piece of music a challenger would first perform. And taking that feat one step further--Tom could play a perfect bass accompaniment to the treble played by someone seated beside him--heard for the first time as he played it. Tom would often push the other performer aside and repeat the entire composition alone. When audiences applauded, Tom followed suit--mimicking the sounds of approval. One of the earliest concert reviews published in the Baltimore Sun on June 27, 1860 announced to its readers that Tom was a phenomenon in the musical world--"thrusting all our conceptions of the science to the wall and informing us that there is a musical world of which we know nothing." Throughout his life Blind Tom would tour Great Britain, Scotland, Europe, Canada, the Rocky Mountain states, the far West, and South America. His repertoire included up to 7,000 pieces with approximately 100 of his own composition and he had added the coronet, French horn, and flute to his list of mastered instruments. His life consisted of concert stages, hotel rooms, and train rides. Tom's social graces remained undeveloped. He usually ate his meals in seclusion and required assistance in dressing before appearing onstage before his audiences. A command performance before President Buchanan at the White House drew further attention and the press referred to him as the greatest pianist of the age whose skills surpassed Mozart.
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