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A Sketch of the Life of Thomas Greene Bethune (Blind Tom)
Philadelphia: Ledger Book and Job Printing Establishment, 1865.


Thomas Greene Bethune, born Thomas Grimes (1849-1908) but known more widely as "Blind Tom," was one of the most famous musical performers in the United States during the second half of the nineteenth century. Born to Mingo Wiggins and a woman named Charity in Harris County, Georgia, Grimes was named by his master Wiley Jones's teenaged daughter for one of her admirers. Grimes was sold with his parents in 1850 to James Bethune and demonstrated an unusual aptitude for music at the age of four, when he replicated, without instruction, the piano music played by Bethune's daughters. Grimes demonstrated an ability to play by ear any piece of music he heard, and Bethune hired local bands to play for Grimes so that his repertoire would grow. Under Bethune's direction, Grimes began giving public concerts at age eight and eventually made his master as much as $50,000 a year. Prior to the Civil War, Bethune forced Grimes's parents to sign an indenture agreement that gave the Bethunes a right to Grimes's service for five years and making the Bethunes Grimes's legal guardians even after his family had received their freedom. Grimes subsequently adopted the name Thomas Greene Bethune, but he was best known as Blind Tom. He traveled extensively, giving concerts in Europe and routinely subjecting himself to the assessment of famous musicians. Grimes also wrote more than a hundred original compositions for the piano and performed for almost fifty years. He stopped performing in 1905 but continued playing the piano until his death in 1908, by which time he was known as Thomas Wiggins.

This Sketch (1865) is a brief pamphlet that introduces Grimes and promotes his first concert tour in the Northeast after the Civil War. He performed at Philadelphia's Concert Hall on September 12, 1865, and proved so popular that his original week-long engagement was extended three additional weeks.

The Sketch focuses on Grimes's blindness and the ways in which it makes him an object of ridicule. The pamphlet's unknown author recounts Tom's efforts to use his eyes as he holds objects up to a strong light and finds it "amusing to notice the expression of his countenance during this operation" (p. 5). Though Greene's eyes are a source of pain and grief to him, the pamphlet relates demonstrations of his suffering in anecdotes that treat him without sympathy or sensitivity. Rather, the only goal of the author seems to be entertainment. Grimes is informed by medical specialists that he will never see, he listens "to all their learned disquisitions with the air of a philosopher, then running from their presence, he would grasp a small piece of wood, and, without any regard to pain or suffering, thrust it into his sightless eyes until the blood streamed down his face" (p. 4).

In order to make Grimes's performance seem more remarkable, the pamphlet describes his virtuosity at the piano in degrading terms, describing him as an imitator of others' musical gifts and ignoring his own abilities as a performer and composer. Grimes's "imitative powers are not merely physical, but are also vocal" and he "is the only artiste who can perform a piece of music with his back toward the instrument" (pp. 7-8). Perhaps most impressively, Grimes "has the ability to carry three airs at the same time, one with either hand, and singing the third" (p. 8). The pamphlet promises that "all who miss the opportunity of seeing his performances will pass over the most sublime wonder of the present century" (p. 8).

Works Cited: Southall, Geneva H., Blind Tom, the Black Pianist- Composer (1849-1908): Continually Enslaved, Lanham: Scarecrow, 1999.

Zachary Hutchins

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