The Southern Literary Trail makes its biennial appearance and the first event begins in the wake of Mardi Gras. It’s but one of seven programs scheduled for Mobile.
On Sunday, Feb. 22, at 3 p.m. the Trail presents “John Davis Plays Blind Tom: Music as Storytelling” in the recital hall of the University of South Alabama’s Laidlaw Performing Arts Center.
Born into slavery, blind and autistic, it’s a wonder Thomas Wiggins survived at all. That his name and accomplishments have continued into the 21st century is astounding.
When Wiggins exhibited a bent for the piano at the tender age of four, the daughters of Georgia’s Bethune family that owned Wiggins and his parents encouraged his pursuits. His skill for mimicry and natural abilities led to his first composition at age five.
Luckily, the patriarch of the family recognized young Wiggins’ gifts, moved him into an adjoining room off the main house and cultivated his pursuits. A neighbor told the Atlanta Constitution in 1908 Wiggins played 12 of the day’s 24 hours.
At age eight, he was “hired out” to a concert promoter. On tour, the child was made to perform up to four times a day. The savant reportedly earned the concert promoter and his owner up to $100,000 a year, close to $2 million adjusted for inflation.
In concordance with the times, the marketing for Blind Tom took the angle of a freak show, part beast and part artist. He was often compared to a bear, baboon or mastiff.
It was common for professional stage musicians to perform numbers only to have the audience watch mesmerized while Wiggins reproduced the numbers spontaneously. He was claimed to have eventually learned some 7,000 musical numbers.
In 1866, Wiggins former owner-turned-manager toured him though Europe. In 1875, management was passed to a Bethune son and they toured the U.S.
Through the remainder of the century, Wiggins passed between guardians, courted calamity — he was in Pennsylvania during 1889’s disastrous Johnstown Flood — and became the first African-American to perform officially at the White House. He played to a packed house in Mobile on Nov. 17, 1891.
In the Los Angeles Times’ review of Deirdre O’Connell’s book on Wiggins, it was noted Wiggins’ tale is a “story with bottomless complexity, touching on race and sanity and slavery and art. But ultimately his life makes us think about what it means to be human.”
Steinway Artist John Davis has played a major role in the revival of interest in Blind Tom with a CD of his music and a multimedia concert exploring his life and art. He will perform also in Tuscaloosa, Tuskegee and Demopolis.
John Davis will also meet the public at Broussard’s Piano Gallery and Academy of Music (1541 E. Interstate 65, Service Rd. S.) on Saturday, Feb. 21 at 5 p.m., the day before his Laidlaw program. For more info, call the Gallery at 251-344-8856.
Davis’ Mobile performance is presented in memory of Albert Murray, a Southern Literary Trail author from the area, whose works include Stomping the Blues and other essays on the history and influence of African-American music. For additional info, Mobile Arts Council at 251-432-9796.
Other Literary Trail events for the spring include a Eugene Walter Porch Play at the Cox-Deasy Cottage on March 14, screenings of William Wyler’s “Jezebel” and “The Little Foxes” on March 21, a survey of Eugene Walter’s film career on March 29 and a discussion of Mobile artist and writer Emma Langdon Roche on April 16.
For more info on these and other events, go to southernliterarytrail.org.