Ballad of Blind Tom

Author: Deirdre O’Connell

Born into slavery in Georgia, Tom Wiggins died an international celebrity in New York in 1908. His life was one of the most bizarre and moving episodes in American history. Blind and presumably autistic – and so unable to work with the other slaves – Tom was left to his own devices. He was mesmerized by the music of his owner’s young daughters, and by the time he was four Tom was playing tunes on the piano.

Eventually freed from slavery, Blind Tom toured the country and the world, playing for huge crowds and private audiences, for celebrites and royalty – and dazzling audiences everywhere. Part genius and part novelty act, Blind Tom embodied contradictions – a star and a freak, freed from slavery but still the property of his white guardian. His life grants us a prism through which we can see into the culture of celebrity and racism at the turn of the twentieth century.