This show originally aired on June 19, 2010

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Saturday, June 18, 2011

On June 19 we celebrate Juneteenth, also known as Freedom Day or Emancipation Day, marking the abolition of slavery in the United States. The holiday originated in Texas and commemorates the date the Emancipation Proclamation was finally enforced by Union officials in the state of Texas, which came many months after the Proclamation was issued.

Terrance McKnight introduces us to the music of Tom Wiggins, also known as "Blind Tom." Born blind into slavery in 1849, Tom was unable to do typical work on the Bethune plantation where he and his parents were enslaved. At an early age, he showed an extraordinary musical talent and an insatiable desire to play the piano, mimicking the music the Bethune daughters played, as well as all of the sounds he heard around him on the plantation. Soon, Tom could repeat entire pieces of complex music after hearing them only once.

James Bethune recognized Tom's unbelievable talent and saw potential. He first licensed Tom to a traveling showman, who marketed him as a circus-style freak. Following this, Bethune organized tours of public performances for Tom in the United States and Europe. He played for dignitaries, presidents and countless audiences who both scrutinized and marveled at his incredible abilities at the piano. He became one of the highest earning entertainers in the country, although his earnings went to James Bethune and Bethune's children.

Because of his musical gift, Tom Wiggins was granted a life of freedom most African Americans were not able to live. However, Tom was not free in many respects. While slaves were freed by the Emancipation Proclamation, Tom was never free from his performance engagements where he was presented as a savant as well as an oddity and for which he was never paid.

As we celebrate and reflect on Juneteenth, it is revealing to learn about Blind Tom Wiggins' life. Join Terrance this week as we explore his music and his story.



Improviation on "When This Cruel War Is Over"

Thomas Wiggins

John Davis, piano

Newport 85660


Lyric for Strings

George Walker

Cleveland Chamber Symphony

Erwin London, conductor

Albany 270


Bamboula, Op. 2 (Danse de negres)

Louis Moreau Gottschalk

Eugene List, piano

Vanguard Classics 4050


Piano Trio, Op. 150

Amy Marcy Cheney Beach

Romantic Chamber Group, London

BIS 1245


Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child


Paul Robeson, bass-baritone

Angel/EMI 15586


Wellenklange -Voice of the Waves

Thomas Wiggins

John Davis, piano

Newport 85660


Polonaise in A-flat, Op. 53, "Heroic"

Frederic Chopin

Martha Argerich, piano

Angel/EMI 56805


Ride the Chariot


Fisk Jubilee Singers

Danita Wilson, soprano

Fisk University 19901


That Welcome Day

Thomas Greene Bethune

William Brown, tenor

Ann Sears, piano

Albany 329


An Explanation Text by James Weldon Johnson

Will Marion Cook

William Brown, tenor

Ann Sears, piano

Albany 329



Leonard Bernstein

12 Cellists of Berlin Philharmonic

Angel/EMI 57319



Thomas Wiggins

John Davis, piano

Newport 85660


Symphony No. 1 "Afro-American"

William Grant Still

Detroit Symphony Orchestra

Neeme Jarvi, conductor

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