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by Mark Twain
One day last winter I was on my way from Galena to another Illinois town to fill a lecture engagement. I went into the smoking car and sat down to meditate; but it was not a good meditating place, for pretty soon a burly negro man on the opposite side of the car began to sway his body violently forward and back, and mimic with his mouth the hiss and clatter of the train, in the most savagely excited way.
Every time he came forward I was sure he was going to brain himself on the seat-back in front of him, and every time he reversed I was as certain he was going to throw a back-somersault over his own seat. What a wild state he was in! Clattering, hissing, whistling, blowing off gauge cocks, ringing his bell, thundering over bridges with a row and a racket like everything going to pieces, whooping through tunnels, running over cows ― Heavens! I thought, will this devil never run his viewless express off the track and give us a rest? No, sir. For three dreadful hours he kept it up ― and you may know by that what muscles and what wind he had. His wild eyes were sightless. For the most part he kept his head turned sideways and upward as blind people usually do who get a dim ray of light from apparently above the eye somewhere. He kept his face constantly twisted and distorted out of all shape. When he spoke he talked excitedly to himself, in an idiotic way and incoherently, but never slowed down on his imaginary express train to do it.
He looked about thirty, was coarsely and slouchily dressed, and was as ungainly in build and uncomely of countenance as any half-civilized plantation slave. After I had endured his furious entertainment until I was becoming as crazy as he was and getting ready to start an opposition express on my own hook, I inquired who this barbarian was, and where he was bound for, and why he was not chained or throttled? They said it was Blind Tom, the celebrated pianist ― a harmless idiot to whom all sounds were music, and the imitation of them an unceasing delight. Even discord had a charm for his exquisite ear. Even the groaning and clattering and hissing of a railway train was harmony to him. And this stalwart brute was to torture his muscles all day with this terrific exercise, and then instead of lying down at night to die of exhaustion, was to sit behind a grand piano and bewitch a multitude with the pathos, the tenderness, the gaiety, the thunder, the brilliant and varied inspiration of his music!
A month or two ago I attended his performances three nights in succession. If ever there was an inspired idiot this is the individual. He lorded it over the emotions of his audience like an autocrat. He swept them like a storm, with his battle-pieces; he lulled them to rest again with melodies as tender as those we hear in dreams; he gladdened them with others that rippled through the charmed air as happily and cheerily as the riot the linnets make in California woods; and now and then he threw in queer imitations of the tuning of discordant harps and fiddles, and the groaning and wheezing of bag-pipes, that sent the rapt silence into tempests of laughter. And every time the audience applauded when a piece was finished, this happy innocent joined in and clapped his hands, too, and with vigorous emphasis. It was not from egotism, but because it is his natural instinct to imitate pretty much every sound he hears.
When anybody else plays, the music so crazes him with delight that he can only find relief in uplifting a leg, depressing his head half way to the floor and jumping around on one foot so fast that it almost amounts to spinning ― and he claps his hands all the while, too. His head misses the piano about an inch or an inch and a half every time he comes around, but some astonishing instinct keeps him forever from hitting it. It must be instinct, because he cannot see, and he must surely grow too dizzy with his spinning to be able to measure distances and know where he is going to and whither he is drifting. And when the volunteer is done, Tom stops spinning, sits down and plays the piece over, exactly as the volunteer had played it, and puts in all the slips, mistakes, discords, corrections, and everything just where they occurred in the original performance! He will exactly reproduce the piece, no matter how fast it was played or how slow, or whether he ever heard it before or not.
The second night that I attended, two musical professors sat down together and played a duet, which they had composed themselves beforehand for the occasion. It was wonderfully tangled and complicated, wonderfully fast in movement, and was bristling with false notes. In the midst of it "Yankee Doodle" was interpolated, but so mutilated with intentional discords that one could not help writhing in his seat when they rattled it off. The bass was a brilliant piece of complication, and fitted the composition about as well as it would have fitted any other tune ― just about. When the piece was finished, Tom stopped spinning and took the treble player's place alongside the bass performer, and clattered it furiously through, with his nose in the air, and never missed a note of any kind; and when he faithfully put in the ludicrous discords in "Yankee Doodle," the house came down. Then the treble man came back, and Tom took the wonderful bass and played it perfectly.
Tom will play two tunes and sing a third at the same time, and let the audience choose the keys he shall perform in. I heard him play "Fisher's Hornpipe" with his right hand in two sharps (D), and "Yankee Doodle" with his left in three flats (E flat), and sing "Tramp, tramp, tramp, the Boys are Marching," in the key of C ― all at the same time. It was a dreadful and disorganizing mixture of meaningless sounds, but you could easily discover that there was "no deception," as the magician's say, by taking up the tunes one at a time and following them a little while, and then you would perceive that in time, movement and melody, each was without fault.
But the most surprising thing this High-You Muck-a-Muck of all the negro minstrels does, is to analyze musical sounds. If you will turn your back to the piano and let somebody strike a key at random here and there, you will see that you cannot call the name of two of the notes in succession except by pure guess work; and when just one note is touched by itself you cannot tell whether it was a black key or a white one.
Blind Tom is your superior, then, in some respects. For he can stand off at a distance, and face the audience, with his back to the piano, and you may strike any key you please, and he will tell its name and its color; and two persons from the audience may select twenty keys (mixed so as to form a discord that will give you the lockjaw), and strike them suddenly and all at once, with their four hands ― and while the sound lingers in the air, the listening idiot will incline his head and make a fine assay of that sound, separate the web of discord into its individual elements, and then begin with the first note and rapidly call the name of every key of the twenty in succession, and never make a mistake! And twenty more may be struck, and the fingers of the performers instantly sent scattering at random over the full compass of the piano ― but by the time the flash of sound had died Thomas has analyzed it and can name the notes that made it.
All the schooling of a life-time could not teach a man to do this wonderful thing, I suppose ― but this blind, uninstructed idiot of nineteen does it without any trouble.
archangel, cast out of upper Heaven like another Satan, inhabits this coarse
casket; and he comforts himself and makes his prison beautiful with thoughts and
dreams and memories of another time and another existence that fire this dull
clod with impulses and inspirations it no more comprehends than does the stupid
worm the stirring of the spirit within her of the gorgeous captive whose wings
she fetters and whose flight she stays. It is not Blind Tom that does these
wonderful things and plays this wonderful music ― it is the other party.
PROGRAMME & SPECIAL NOTICE. 
[...] Thomas Greene Bethune (his parents having taken for him and themselves the name of their former owner), better known to the public as "Blind Tom," [but also known as Thomas Wiggins] was born within a few miles of the city of Columbus, in the county of Muscogee, and State of Georgia, on the 25th day of May, 1849. His parents are common field hands of the pure negro blood, with nothing to distinguish them from the mass of their race, except that his mother ― a small woman of fine form ― has remarkably small feet and hands, is of an active, merry temperament, and quick in her movements.
Tom was born blind, and, learning nothing from sight, manifested in his early infancy so entire a want of intellect as to induce the belief that he was idiotic as well as blind. His imbecility and helplessness secured for him the sympathy and care of the family in his infancy; when he began to walk and run about the yard, his amusing peculiarities made him a pet. His first manifestation of interest in anything was his fondness for sounds; the first indication of capacity, his power of imitating them. Musical sounds exerted a controlling influence over him; but all sounds, from the soft breathings of the flute to the harsh grating of the corn-sheller, appeared to afford him exquisite enjoyment.
He talked earlier than other children; and he talked no "baby talk." He uttered his words clearly and distinctly, attaching no meaning to them, but seeming to consider them merely sounds, which he imitated, as he did all others that he heard. Whatever words were addressed to him, whether in the form of a question, a command, a request, or as matter of information, he simply repeated in the tones in which they had been uttered; and would repeat not only them, but conversations he had heard ― sometimes for hours at a time; yet, long after he was in possession of a vocabulary, with which, if he had known its use, he might have sustained a respectable conversation upon any ordinary topic, he never attempted to express by words an idea, a feeling, or a want. His wants he expressed by a whine, which those about him had to interpret as best they could.
The first effort to teach him was made one evening when the family was at supper, (Tom, as usual at meal times, being present,) when his owner, upon being informed that his mother, as an excuse for not teaching him something, had said he had not sense enough to learn anything, replied, "That is a mistake. A horse or a dog may be taught almost anything, provided you always use precisely the same terms to express the same idea. Show him what you mean, and have the patience to repeat it often enough. Tom has as much sense as a horse or dog, and I will show you that he can be taught." He thereupon arose from the table, and approaching Tom, said to him, "Tom, sit down." Tom, of course, as was expected, stood still and repeated the words. He repeated the order and sat him down upon the floor. He then said to him, "Tom, get up." Tom sat still and repeated the order. He then repeated the order and lifted Tom to his feet. He then ordered Tom to sit down, which he did promptly ― to get up, and he sprang to his feet.
From that time there was matter of new interest about Tom. Everybody began to teach him something. It was soon discovered that he forgot nothing. Present to him any number of objects, one after another, tell him the name of each as you presented it, he would put his hand upon it, smell of it, and pronounce its name; then present them in any order you pleased, and, after feeling and smelling of each as it was presented, he would, without fail, give its appropriate name. It was astonishing and interesting to test and to witness the exercise of this power, and, in consequence, Tom speedily learned to distinguish many things and call them by name.
He was perfectly delighted by cries of pain. When his mother whipped any of the older children he would laugh and caper, and rub his hands in an ecstasy of enjoyment, and soon would be found whipping himself, and repeating the words of the mother and the cries of the child. He enjoyed so highly the crying of children that he would inflict pain upon them, for the pleasure of hearing them cry; and a constant watch had to be kept on him when he was about younger children. He once choked a younger brother nearly to death, and at another time burnt an infant sister so badly as to produce fears of a fatal result. To this day any exclamation or expression indicative of pain gives him great pleasure; and though he will express sympathy for the sufferer, and prescribe remedies for his relief, he cannot restrain his expressions of pleasure. Doubtless it is the strength and the intensity of expression given to sounds produced by pain, that afford the enjoyment.
His mother usually did the churning; and when she was engaged in that employment, when he was unable to reach the top of the churn of ordinary size, he would whine and tug at her, until she would stand him on a stool and permit him to go to work. He did all the churning for the family as long as he remained at home, and was perhaps the only person who ever sought it as a source of pleasure.
Unlike other children, he delighted in being out of doors and alone at night, and unless prevented by being shut up in the house, would go into the yard, where he would go around a circle in a sort of dance, accompanying his motion sometimes with a monotonous hum, sometimes repeating conversations he had heard; then he would stop and whirl round like a top, rubbing his hands together, convulsed with laughter, as if he had found something which irresistibly moved him to mirth. This propensity to be out of doors was indulged by his parents the more readily, because, if they kept him in the house, he resorted to all the means in his power to make a noise. He dragged the chairs over the floor, rattled the dishes, beat the tin pans, and, unless closely watched, pinched or bit the younger children to make them cry. If they put him to bed they scared but little relief, for he would roll and twist himself into all sorts of shape, and laugh and talk for hours, and frequently, unless the door was securely fastened, would get up after everybody else was asleep, and go out to amuse himself in the yard.
His power of judging of the lapse of time was as remarkable as his power of remembering and imitating sounds. Those who are familiar with clocks which strike the hours, have observed that, a few minutes before the clock strikes, there is a sharp sound, different from and louder than the regular ticking. There was a clock in the house; and every hour in the day, just precisely when that sound was produced, Tom was certain to be there, and remain until the hour struck. At one time the striking machinery got out of order, but every hour, just at the time, he was there to listen; and so soon as the time for the clock to strike had passed, he would set up a cry and leave.
He exhibited his wonderful musical powers before he was two years old. When the young misses of the family sat on the steps, of an evening, and sang, Tom would come around and sing with them. One of them one evening said to her father:
"Pa, Tom sings beautifully, and he don't have to learn any tunes; he knows them all; for as soon as we begin to sing, he sings right along with us."
Very soon she said: "He sings fine seconds to anything we sing."
His voice was then strong, soft, and melodious. Just before he had completed his second year, he had the whooping-cough, from the effects of which his voice underwent an entire change: it became and continued for years exceedingly rough and harsh, though it did not affect the taste or correctness of his singing.
He was little less than four years of age when a piano was brought to the house. The first note that was sounded, of course, brought him up. He was permitted to indulge his curiosity by running his fingers over and smelling the keys, and was then taken out of the parlor. As long as any one was playing he was contented to stay in the yard, and dance and caper to the music; but the moment it ceased, having discovered whence the sounds proceeded, and how they were produced, he was anxious to get to the instrument to continue them. One night the parlor and the piano had been left open, his mother had neglected to fasten her door, and he had escaped without her knowledge. Before day, the young ladies awoke, and, to their astonishment, heard Tom playing one of their pieces. He continued to play until the family at the usual time arose, and gathered around him to witness and wonder at his performance, which, though necessarily very imperfect, was marvelously strange; for, notwithstanding this was his first known effort at a tune, he played with both hands, and used the black as well as the white keys.
After a while he was allowed free access to the piano, and commenced playing everything he heard. He soon mastered all of that, and commenced composing for himself. He would sit at the piano for hours, playing over the pieces he had heard, then go out, and run and jump about the yard a little while, come back and play something of his own. Asked what it was, he replied, "It is what the wind said to me," or "what the birds said to me," or "what the trees said to me," or what something else said to him. No doubt what he was playing was connected, in his mind, with some sound or combination sounds proceeding from those things, and not infrequently the representation was so good as to render the similarity clear to others.
There was but one thing which seemed to give Tom as much pleasure as the sound of the piano. Between a wing and the body of the dwelling there is a hall, on the roof of which the rain falls, from the roof of the dwelling, and runs thence down a gatter. There is, in the combination of sounds produced by the falling and running water, something so enchanting to Tom, that, from his early childhood to the time he left home, whenever it rained, whether by day or night, he would go into that passage and remain as long as the rain continued. When he was less than five years of age, having been there during a severe thunderstorm, he went to the piano and played what is now known as his Rain Storm, and said it was what the rain, the wind, and the thunder said to him. The perfection of the representation can be fully appreciated by those only who have heard the sounds by the falling of the water upon the roofs, and its running off through the gutters.
There was in the city of Columbus a German music teacher, who kept pianos and music for sale. The boys about the city having heard much of Tom, sometimes asked the boys of the family to take him to town, that they might hear him; upon these occasions they asked permission of this man to use one of his pianos, and though he would grant the permission, he would not hear him. If he was engaged he would send them to the back part of the store, which was a very deep one; if he had nothing to do, he would walk out into the street. When Tom was about eight years of age, a gentleman having obtained permission to exhibit him, hired a piano of this man and invited him to visit his concert. He indignantly rejected the invitation.
The man, however, succeeded in awakening the curiosity of the wife of the musician sufficiently to induce her to attend, and she gave her husband such accounts that he went the next night. After the performance was over, he approached the man and said:
"Sir, I give it up; the world has never seen such a thing as that little blind negro, and will never see such another."
Encouraged by this the exhibitor the next day applied to him to undertake to teach Tom. His reply then was:
"No, sir; I can't teach him anything; he knows more of music that we know, or can learn ― we can learn all that great genius can reduce to rule and put in tangible form; he knows more than that; I do not even know what it is, but I see and feel it is something beyond my comprehension. All that can be done for him will be to let him hear fine playing; he will work it all out by himself after a while, but he will do it sooner by hearing fine music."
It has been stated that Tom was born blind; in his infancy and for years the pupils of his eyes were as white and apparently as inanimate as those of a dead fish. But nature pointed out to him a remedy which gradually relieved him from total darkness, and in process of time conferred upon him, to a limited extent, the blessings of vision.
When he was three of four years of age, it was observed that he passed most of his time with his face upturned to the sun, as if gazing intently upon it, occasionally passing his hand back and forth with a rapid motion before his eyes; that was soon followed by thrusting his fingers into his eyes with a force which appeared to be almost sufficient to expel the eye-balls from their sockets; from this he proceeded to digging into one of them with sticks, until the blood would run down his face. All this must have been pleasant to him, or he would not have done it; and there is no doubt that he is indebted to the stimulus thus applied to his eyes, for the measure of sight he now enjoys. When five or six years of age, a small, comparatively clear speck appeared in one of his eyes, and it was discovered that within a very small space he could see any bright object. That eye has continued to clear, until he is now able to see luminous bodies at a distance, and can distinguish small bodies by bringing them close to his eye. Persons that he knows well, he can distinguish at the distance of a few feet, and it is hoped that in process of time his sight will so far improve, as to relieve him from many of the difficulties to which he is subjected.
The mere technicalities of music Tom learns without difficulty. Its substance he seems to comprehend intuitively. To teach him the notes, it was necessary only to sound them, and tell him their names. With the elements and principles of music he seemed to be familiar, long before he knew any of the names by which they were indicated; as a man going into a strange country may be perfectly acquainted with the appearance and nature of the material objects which meet his view, without knowing the names applied to them by the people.
Considering that in early life he learned nothing, and later but little from sight, that he is possessed by an overmastering passion, which so pervades his whole nature as to leave little room for interest in anything else, and the gratification of which has been indulged to the largest extent, it is not surprising that, to the outside world, he should exhibit but few manifestations of intellect as applicable to any of the ordinary affairs of life, or that those who see him only under its influence should conclude that he is idiotic.
The elegance, taste and power of his performances, his wonderful power of imitation, his extraordinary memory ― not only of music, but of names, dates and events ― his strict adherence to what he believes to be right, his uniform politeness, and his nice sense of propriety, afford to those who know him well, ample refutation of this opinion.
Tom sometimes indulges in some strange gymnastics upon the stage, which are considered by many a part of his stage training. So far from this being the case, it is but a slight outcropping of his usual exercises. If those who see him upon the stage could witness his performances in his room, and the enjoyment they afford him, they would perhaps regret the necessity of his restraint in public. He never engaged in the plays of children or manifested any interest in them. His amusements were all his own. With a physical organization of great power and vigor, and an exuberance of animal spirits, he naturally sought physical exercise; compelled by want of sight to limit himself to a small space, he put himself in almost every conceivable posture, and restored to those exercises which required the most violent physical exertion. They are now necessary certainly to his enjoyment, perhaps to his health.
Tom has been seen probably by more people than any one living being. He has played in almost every important city in the United States and in a great many of the smaller towns-and everywhere to good houses except in Boston ― in Paris, and most of the principal cities of England and Scotland; and everywhere he has astonished and pleased those who have heard him. Those who have observed him most closely, and attempted to investigate him most fully, pronounce him "a living miracle," unparalleled, incomprehensible, such as has not been seen before, and probably will never be seen again.