Striking a Chord

Think of history as a piano: an austere, glossy model that invites and intimidates whoever’s looking for revelations from its keyboard. A sensibility oriented toward fact is sufficient background to tease out a few notes into a simple, logical pattern. And if you have a surfeit of facts and can season them with nuance, the audience should end up nestled in your hip pocket. But facts can only do so much, especially if they’re slippery or cloaked in shadows. When that happens, the music can become static, even inert. So you shift tactics, go for broke, make a few educated guesses—for a start. You’re then compelled to reshape time, space, even the landscape in pursuit of something closer to the truth than meager facts can replicate. The music that comes out may be so unfamiliar that those who hear it will need to come up with new names to describe it.

Consider this metaphor a gateway to both the style and subject matter of Jeffery Renard Allen’s Song of the Shank, an eerie fever dream of a historical novel spun off a real-life cultural phenomenon from the waning days of antebellum America.

The phenomenon’s name was Tom Wiggins, a slave boy born sightless and likely autistic in 1849 on a Georgia plantation and sold, along with his parents, several months later to General James Bethune, a lawyer, newspaper publisher, and early proponent of Southern secession. Because his disabilities prevented him from doing slave’s work, the artist-savant eventually known as Blind Tom had the run of the general’s house and eventually bonded with the Bethune daughters and their piano, whose workings he was able to gradually understand through intuition and touch, described by Allen as “his primary means of witnessing the world.” Tom could play a song by age four and compose his own songs by age five. He could recognize and re-create sounds of all kinds, and paid close attention to the sonic details of the world around him: “Birds warbling in motionless air. A barking dog. Snakes in tree branches,” even “ants that dance a frenzy over a meal.”

By eight, Tom’s uncanny sense of sound and touch make him capable of playing works from the classical repertoire and of inventing his own variations on folk tunes and military airs. General Bethune sends Blind Tom off with a promoter on a concert tour through a nation on the verge of going to civil war over a system that keeps him in bondage. He plays at the White House before President James Buchanan, but does much of his prewar work before Southern audiences who, despite seeing him as something less than human, are transported by Wiggins’s playing in a manner vividly rendered here and throughout Allen’s novel:

He brings his hands into position and begins the first selection, hands moving, casting a haze over his features, or perhaps it is the light shining down from the massive chandelier above—thousands of burning candles—that spins a web of glare that makes him so hard to see. You are skilled in fine general culture and know how to listen. Shut your eyes to skin and you are forced to admit that the performance is thoroughly in tune with the very best of European art, that the performer you are hearing is one of them, no doubt about it, a young virtuoso. He moves his body very little and has an odd way of bringing his lower lip up and letting it fall at short intervals, as a fish works its mouth while breathing. He seems to use only one foot, his right, in pedaling. And when he finishes the piece, he stands up from the stool, turns slightly toward the audience, and takes a quick bow. (Three seconds, four.) Then sits right back down on the stool and begins the next selection.

In passages such as this, you find, beyond the echoes of Faulkner and Morrison, a tapestry of sensation and images—those candles!—that makes the past feel as accessible as your most recent shopping excursion. Allen creates stirring, evocative music from the particulars of history the way Tom was said to have spun eccentric variations off the melody of “Yankee Doodle.” But Song of the Shank releases itself from the obligations of fact, pitching camp in more dreamlike terrain, announcing its own shadowy mischief by beginning its narrative in 1866, a year after the Civil War has ended. Tom is living in an apartment in a large city. We’re certain that city is New York, though it’s never explicitly named as such by Allen beyond identifying, as Central Park, an expanse of urban greenery where Union soldiers are bivouacked, charged with keeping the peace after years of rioting and random murder of black citizens by antidraft white immigrants. Tom, still famous after all this time, has until now managed to avoid the bloodshed by remaining out of town and out of sight with his guardian, Eliza Bethune, whom historical record identifies as a daughter-in-law of the general and who hadn’t become Tom’s sole guardian until the late 1880s. (You’ll just have to ignore the novel’s deviations from historical realities. As noted earlier, Shank isn’t that kind of recital.)

A poster promoting Blind Tom, ca. 1859.
A poster promoting Blind Tom, ca. 1859.

Not long after Tom and Eliza return to the unnamed metropolis, she encounters a poised, dignified black man named Tabbs Gross in front of the apartment building she and Tom now call home. Tabbs comes from Edgemere, an island a mile or two off the city’s coast, whose sole inhabitants are African migrants, ex-slaves, and other black refugees. He has come to tell Eliza that one of those freed slaves, Tom’s mother, has traveled north to reunite with her son.

Something is set in motion. But what, exactly? Tom’s mother seems every bit as disoriented by this strange proximity of island life as the reader. She doesn’t quite know what to expect since it’s been eleven years since she’s seen “her Thomas . . . My Tom,” and despite her claims upon him, he remains relatively distant from her. And she begins to wonder what exactly “Mister Tabbs” is after in arranging this reunion. (Whatever his agenda, it is fueled by rage as old as the slave trade and as new as Reconstruction’s unfinished business.)

Song of the Shank then comes unstuck in time, rolling back to Tom’s childhood and his inchoate struggles with the noises in his head along with unrelenting darkness. The novel—in which, as in such similarly unspooling Faulkner tales as Go Down, Moses or Light in August, narrative perspectives shift without announcement—creeps into General Bethune’s head for a while, his imperious ideas about race and hierarchy slicing through his world like a broadsword, though the general is no more certain about what’s going on with this strange boy than anybody else is. We then meet Perry Oliver, the music promoter Bethune goes into business with. At first, Oliver and his white valet Seven view Tom as an oddity to be exploited. But the music that pours through Tom like light wears away at Oliver’s resistance to Tom’s erratic behavior. As if seized by the same magic spell, Oliver, Tom’s mother, the Bethunes, even Tabbs come to feel possessive toward Blind Tom to varying degrees. The reader shares this yearning. The more we see of Tom, watch him thrashing, groping, and slipping his way through his hostile world, the more we want to know about the interior life of this savant. But what if Tom is little more than the sum of everyone else’s projections, including our own? What if his transactions with the universe are oblivious to claims upon his soul by anyone or anything, except (maybe) the piano?

We may have to live with that. Because as helpless as Tom may seem without someone to tend to him, guide him, protect him, he somehow seems freer, more certain of what he wants, even amid darkness and chaos, than all those white and black people imposing their ambitions, dreams, and fears upon him, claiming to know better, even though, in the end, they don’t know anything; not even Tabbs Gross, for all his steely resolve and keen intellect, is as certain of the future as he believes. He’s not too dissimilar from historians, who can only go so far in retrieving, much less resolving, the lost data of the past.

The imaginative artist, especially one such as Allen, who carries the resources of the poet and the psychic in his trick bag, is compelled to impose more variations on the real, whether past or present: lying, as Ralph Ellison once said, to get to the truth. It’s through such bold wanderings through the American subconscious that African American writers such as Jeffery Renard Allen strengthen autonomy over the depictions of their own past. And his daring gesture may embolden others to coax solutions to other legendary mysteries. For instance: If you still want to know who the legendary New Orleans cornet player Buddy Bolden was and how he helped invent jazz, stop looking for recorded evidence that no one has ever found. Do what Allen did for Blind Tom. Make him up, and you can make him whole again.

Gene Seymour has written about music, film, and literature for such publications as The Nation, the Los Angeles Times, Film Comment, The Baffler, and American History. He lives in Washington, DC, and is working on a collection of essays.