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John Davis Plays Blind Tom -John Davis, Piano - (NPD85660)

John Davis Plays Blind Tom -John Davis, Piano - (NPD85660)

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Product Code: NPD85660

Denver Post - February 7, 2000
He was called "the eighth wonder of the world" and "the great musical prodigy of the age" during his lifetime, but today the prowess of Thomas Wiggins, better known as "Blind Tom" Bethune, is barely a footnote in music history. Indeed, the new Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience doesn't list him.

Happily this neglect is at a partial end with the release of "John Davis Plays Blind Tom" (Newport Classic NPD 85660). Up till now the emphasis was on the known facts of Blind Tom's life, never on the music itself. But the fact is, he published a number of works, and these reveal more than suspected of the man and his life.

These are the facts: He was born in 1849 to slave parents, Mingo and Charity Wiggins (some sources list the surname as Greene) and was part of the bargain when they were sold to Gen. James Neil Bethune. Thomas was blind from birth - his eyes were inelegantly described in one biography as "white and apparently as inanimate as those of a dead fish" - and was generally held to be mentally retarded.

But in the Bethune household he heard the family's daughters at the piano and, as the family dined in another room, amazed everyone by picking out the music the daughters had played earlier. He was about 4 at the time. It became clear that the child could reproduce by ear anything someone played for him. The oldest daughter, Mary, taught him what she knew. The results were astounding, and the boy became a prodigy known for his musical abilities. As an adult, Blind Tom reputedly had a repertory of 7,000 pieces, of which about 100 were his own compositions.

Oliver's publicity insisted that these feats were done by "an utter idiot," and Tom's own ungainly mannerisms fed the legend. An 1862 newspaper account put it, "He resembles any ordinary Negro boy 13 years old and is perfectly blind and an idiot in everything but music, language, imitations, and perhaps memory." After the Civil War, when African Americans were supposedly free, Bethune got around the difficulty by getting him self-appointed Tom's "guardian" and continued to exhibit him. His appearances in one year generated $100,000, which by to day's values would be more than $1 million, making him one of the highest-paid musicians of all time. Tom, of course, got little to none of it.

John Davis came to the job "as a pianist steeped since childhood in blues culture and African-American music of the Deep South," according to his own program note. Searching out actual printed sources reveals another side of the story. To be sure, much of 19th century piano repertory was designed for home use and wasn't pro- found. There were the inevitable dance tunes for evening soirees including "Cyclone Galop," "Oliver Galop," "Virginia Polka" and "Vivo Galop." These are better than average, but do not become art as, for example, Chopin produced.

More to the point are the ambitious works. The "Battle of Manassas" is at least as good as, and some might say better than some of Louis Moreau Gottschalk's "battle" pieces. It evokes a great deal and quotes familiar tunes of the day. Even the notated "improvisation" on "When This Cruel War Is Over" shows a lively regard for how tunes can fit together and not jar the listener. "Water in the Moonlight" and "Daylight" do duty as precursors to musical impressionism.

Furthermore, Davis has a real regard for the music and delivers it not as side show to music history, but as something to be regarded seriously in its own right. There is a promised second CD in the works.