Ring any bells? I thought not. Just so you know though, it’s the title of a popular piece of Chinese music. It means Moon Reflected in the Second Spring. I haven’t heard it yet but what did catch my attention was the name of the composer. It’s Hua Yanjun, better known as, wait for it, Blind Ah Bing.
That handle naturally reminds one of the huge contribution that blind African Americans have made to popular music. In the country blues field alone, we have the likes of Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blind Willie McTell, Blind Willie Johnson and Blind Boy Fuller. In jazz, there’s Art Tatum, soul, Ray Charles and so on. And lets not forget about gospel music. In fact, according to Wikipedia, the free encyclopaedia, the first barrel-house piano player ever to be recorded was a blind fella with a name almost as evocative as that of our friend Blind Ah Bing. Arizona Dranes was his name.
But if we think that this legacy of blind American musicians goes back a way, then we’d do well to have a squint at Ah Bing’s sightless antecedents. In China, the profession of blind court-musician can be traced back to the 6th century BC and the late-lamented gilds of blind musicians to the 2nd century BC. Shoo. Given that perspective, the musical term “time signature” seems to take on a whole new meaning.
Then there’s the Ukraine. There, it’s said, a massacre of blind minstrels occurred. I don’t think it’s just because their music was so awful that they got taken out though. Maybe the fact that Stalin was in power at the time had something to do with it. The history of these minstrels is actually quite interesting.
For about a century, up until 1930, most of the wandering musos of Ukraine were blind. They were known as bandurists. Wikipedia describes the phenomenon thus. “Music was seen as a social-welfare system for those who could not work at other occupations, and as such it was not an occupation open to able-bodied individuals.” They go on to say, “Because of the connection between bandurists and Ukrainian nationalism, the blind singers were often the focus of persecution by occupying powers.” You just can’t win , can you!
But there is another category of professional blind musicians who, to my knowledge, have never been wiped out on mass. I’m speaking here about piano tuners.
It all began in France during the 1830’s when a blind student of the piano, Claude Montal, defied the skepticism of his superiors and taught himself to twang his piano into harmonic resonance. Soon, he was doing it to his professor’s instrument, as a small favour no doubt. In time, he found himself teaching others the craft. The prejudice had been broken and before long, all the out-of-work blind pianists in both France and England were at it. “Today the image of the blind piano tuner is so ingrained that people sometimes express surprise when they encounter a piano tuner who can see.”
But why am I telling you all this? – I, who am blind myself and who have so often railed against the stereotyping of blind people. To wit, blindies are all possessed of a sixth sense, exceptional hearing, a superior sense of touch, brilliant powers of recall and, what was the other one again? Oh yes, musical talent.
About the latter, isn’t it just that a larger proportion of blindies turn to music as a profession because other jobs are not open to them, this either for practical reasons or because of discrimination? Maybe also, because of the presumption that they’re musical, blind children are encouraged to take up an instrument. This would boost the number of blind tinklers and pickers and so, add to the impression that blindies are all musical. Further to that, talented blind performers tend to stand out a bit in people’s minds. Such explanations are not just my own. Wikipedia, that source of all knowledge, cites some of them as well.
Hold on though. What’s this? It also says that some studies have been done showing that “blind musicians are more likely to have perfect pitch than sighted musicians”. And, oh dear, it also says that a paper published in Nature found that “people born blind or who went blind early in childhood were better able to recognize variations in pitch than were sighted people”.
Curse! Looks like I’m going to have to rethink my preconceived ideas about myself. In fact, I feel a sixth sense coming on. I can hear music. And what’s this?
Aah no! It’s him, Blind Bill Lipshitz, banjo player terrabile, basket weaver extraordinaire and scourge of my imagination. He’s going to want to borrow money off me again. I know it. Don’t ask me how. I just do.