Jenny Gill: Thomas Greene Wiggins is a fascinating historical figure. When did you start conceptualizing a narrative around his life and experience?

Jeffery Renard Allen: I first became interested in writing a fictional narrative about Tom Wiggins in 1998 after reading a brief account of his life in Oliver Sacks’ book An Anthropologist on Mars. Here was a guy who was one of the most famous people of his time, probably the most famous pianist of the 19th century, the first African American to perform at the White House, who had somehow slipped through the cracks of history. I was also intrigued by Sacks’ description of Tom’s stage performances, which were ahead of their time in his ability to play three songs at once in different keys and play compositions that mimicked non-musical phenomena.  

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Jeffery Allen’s #CCproject “Song of the Shank” is now available for purchase through Graywolf Press. The novel is based on the life of fabled 19th-century African American pianist and singer Blind Tom, pictured above.

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