Music and Slavery

What blind musician received national fame as a pianist?

In 1858 the first black pianist to win national fame was Thomas Greene Bethune, or “Blind Tom” (1849–1909). He was also the first black artist known to have performed at the White House. Then about ten years old, he played the piano for President James Buchanan. Born a blind slave near Columbus, Georgia, Bethune’s talent as a composer and a pianist was soon recognized by Colonel Bethune, who had purchased him in 1850. The child prodigy made his debut in Savannah, Georgia, and for more than forty years amazed his audiences “with his artistry and his gift for total recall” of the more than seven hundred pieces that he played. Blind Tom had sporadic formal training and is said to have composed more than a hundred works. He began playing public concerts while still a slave and continued to perform after emancipation. The most celebrated of the early black pianists, he began a tour of Europe in 1866 that netted $100,000.


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