With the impending release of Quentin Tarantino's "Django Unchained," there are bound to be some interesting discussions about the United States' history of slavery.
Some folks will surely be outraged by Tarantino's Spaghetti Western and blaxploitation-fueled take on the subject. But among others, it will probably prove to be an eye-opener regarding a subject which gets very little attention nowadays - despite the fact that the institution of slavery only ended on these shores less than 150 years ago. (If that seems impossibly long ago to you, consider that Stella Mae Case, who died in June of this year, was the daughter of a Civil War soldier, meaning we are still just a generation or two away from that troubled period in the life of our country.)
The United States still feels the economic and social effects of its slave-owning past - and its cultural effects, as well. For example, popular music as we know it today would have been a very different thing indeed had four million black Americans not been suddenly freed in the mid-1860s. That event changed black American music almost immediately.
During the antebellum years, the dominant song types among slave populations had been the work song and the spiritual, two genres which emphasized a community identity for black Americans. But as newly freed African-Americans left the South in droves following the Civil War, heading for the urban centers of the Northeast and the wide expanses of the Southwest, families fractured and popular songs among blacks began to speak to a growing sense of loneliness and isolation, themes which would become woven into the new folk music popularly known as "the blues."
It was the end of slavery that also allowed black Americans to begin to infiltrate America's burgeoning show business. One of the first black stars to rise on the concert circuit in the wake of the Great Emancipation was a former slave who had been blind since birth, but who evinced an astonishing talent for the piano from the age of 7.
Thomas Greene Bethune, or "Blind Tom" as he was popularly known, sold out concert halls throughout the United States and in Europe, traveling much farther than he could have ever hoped after being born to a slave woman named Charity Wiggins. (Bethune was given his surname by his one-time owner, General James Neil Bethune.)
Blind Tom's career started while he was still a slave, and even after he was freed, he continued to work under the tutelage of General Bethune and his son. Blind Tom probably suffered from a form of autism, and was subject to violent shifts of temper and periods of incommunicability - but when he sat down at a piano, his musical grace and ability to emulate almost any sound he heard with his instrument made him famous - and rich.
However, after being declared insane in 1872, most of Blind Tom's fortune was squandered by a succession of managers. He died of a stroke in 1908, having continued to play on the vaudeville circuit as late as 1903. We'll look at a few of the other black stars to rise in the years immediately following the end of slavery next week in this space. Until then, have a very merry Christmas!
Notes is supported by the Gay and Lesbian Fund, promoting literacy through community libraries in Colorado.
Craven Lovelace produces Notes, a daily cultural history of popular music, for KAFM 88.1 Community Radio, kafmradio.org. You can visit cravenlovelace.com for more of his musings on the world of popular culture.