The nation’s early professional pianists serve primarily as background support for various burlesque routines. Only a few attract enough followers to become headliners.
One of them is “Blind Tom” who grows up in Georgia as a slave belonging to James Bethune. While sightless from birth and considered “retarded,” Tom discovers the household piano and begins spontaneously to play the sounds he hears around him. Bethune is astonished, but immediately sees Tom’s “commercial potential.” At age ten his fame spreads after performing at the White House for President Buchanan.
Then, over the next fifty years, “Blind Tom” becomes an international favorite. He composes his own music and masters the French horn, the flute and coronet. Among his many feats is a Beethoven concerto which he first plays facing the piano and then facing away with his hands behind his back. Tom dies at age fifty-nine, but his talent is remembered by a fan, the writer Mark Twain, who christens him “an Archangel out of heaven.”
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Read: Entertainment, American Life in the 1800’s