The image of the blind musician is an important touchstone in many cultures, even where the influence of the blind on music has been limited. The idea of Homer, the blind poet, for example, has had a long existence in Western tradition, even though its basis in truth is uncertain. The legendary 6th century Breton druid and bard Kian Gwenc'hlan is depicted as being imprisoned after having his eyes gouged out for refusing to convert to Christianity and singing out that he isn't afraid to die.
In his book Singer of Tales, Albert Lord explains that in Yugoslavia he found many stories of blind musicians, but few current musicians who were actually blind. Natalie Kononenko had a similar experience in Turkey, though one Turkish musician of great talent, Ashik Veysel was in fact blind. The popularity of the idea of the blind musician has inspired several artists. John Singer Sargent painted a 1912 canvas based on this theme, and Georges de La Tour has a whole series of paintings devoted to blind musicians.
Though the idea of blind musicians may be even more prevalent than their actuality, it remains true that at many points in history and in many different cultures, blind musicians, individually or as a group, have made important contributions to the development of music. Some of these contributions are discussed below.
Blind musicians have also appeared in Muslim harems to entertain the patron and his wives.
Robert Heinlein made a science fiction use of the "blind bard" theme in "The Green Hills of Earth".
Court musician was a traditional profession for the blind in China in antiquity. The first musician mentioned in Chinese sources, Shi Kuang, was a blind performer in the 6th century BC. The Guilds of Blind Musicians and Fortune-Tellers which were still around in China during the middle of the 20th century, claimed to have existed as far back as 200 BC. More recently, groups of blind buskers have continued to perform in Zuoquan County, and presumably in other areas as well.
One of the most popular musical works in China, "Erquan Yingyue (Moon Reflected in the Second Spring)", was composed in the first half of the 20th century by Hua Yanjun, better known as "Blind Ah Bing".
In Japan, Heike Biwa, a form of narrative music, was invented and spread during the Kamakura period (1185–1333) by traveling musicians known as biwa hoshi, who were often blind. These musicians played the biwa, a kind of lute, and recited stories, of which the most famous was The Tale of the Heike. The musicians were sometimes known as "blind priests" because they wore robes and shaved their heads, though they were not in fact Buddhist priests.
There is a strong tradition of blind minstrelsy in Ukraine known as Kobzarstvo. At least from 1800 to 1930—and probably well before that as well—the majority of itinerant musicians in Ukraine were blind. Music was part of the social welfare
system. Those who could not work at other occupations could be apprenticed to become professional bards, often referred to as kobzars (both bandura and lira players could be referred to by this title). These wandering blind minstrels were divided into two groups—bandurists, or kobzars who played bandura, and lirnyks, who played the lira, which was a crank-driven hurdy-gurdy.
The kobzars were an important part of oral tradition in Ukraine. According to the ethnographer P. Zhytetsky, kobzars were thought to have been initially sighted Cossacks, who were especially associated with epic songs, or dumy. Kononenko states that lirnyky, on the other hand, were blind church singers organized into guilds who sang religious songs and were often associated with beggars. By the middle of the 19th century, the two groups had merged; both sang many different types of songs, all were organized into the guilds, and all were blind.
The kobzars have a central place in the national identity of Ukraine. Folklorist Izmail Sreznevskyi argued that the initial Cossack bandurists were actual witnesses of the great battles about which they sang. The image of warrior-bards singing epics was quite popular, and there became a tradition that the great ancient singers were veterans valorously blinded in combat. This in turn led to the belief that the kobzar tradition had greatly weakened in the 19th century, since the traditional songs were now sung by people who were more like beggars than like warriors. Kononenko points out that there is no factual basis for this image, and her research showed that the minstrel tradition was still very strong and creative up until the 1930s.
Because the art of the kobzars was language-specific and included themes dealing with historic subjects of Ukraine's past, the blind singers were often the focus of persecution by occupying powers, according to researcher Mikhailo Khay. This persecution reached its height under Joseph Stalin in the 1930s, when many forms of Ukrainian cultural expression were crushed by the communist government of the Soviet Union. In the late 1930s many bandurists were arrested and some shot. Documents have been discovered to show that the renowned bandurist Hnat Khotkevych was executed in 1938 and the blind kobzar Ivan Kucherenko was shot in 1937.
Numerous sources claim that there was an organized large scale massacre of Ukrainian blind musicians in the 1930s, though this has not been confirmed by official documents, and most details of the incident (including year, place, and method of execution) are disputed. Traditional blind minstrelsy by the late 1930s had largely vanished.
Today, the traditional repertoire of the kobzars is performed by sighted, educated performers. During her research in Ukraine, Kononenko found only one blind folk performer of the old songs, a man named Pavlo Suprun, who had studied bandura playing and voice at the Kiev State Conservatory.
During the medieval and early modern eras, harpists, pipers, and other musicians traveled around Ireland, providing music for dances and other occasions. As in Ukraine, many of the Irish musicians were blind. It was common practise for blind or disabled children to be taught a musical instrument as a means of supporting themselves, as they could not perform hard labour.
The most famous of these blind musicians, harper Turlough O'Carolan, composed many tunes that have become part of the traditional repertoire, including "Sidh Beag Sidh Mór" and "Carolan's Concerto".
Others included Eoghain Ó Cianáin (fl. 1540), Nicholas Dáll Pierce (fl. 1601), William fitz Robert Barry (fl. 1615), Ruaidri Dáll Ó Catháin (died 1653), Higgins of Tyrawley (fl. 18th century), and Martin O'Reilly (1829–1904).
There is a long tradition of blind organists. In the 20th century some of the greatest organists were blind, including the great German Bach scholar and teacher Helmut Walcha (1907–1991), and a number of prominent French organists and composers for the organ including Louis Vierne (1870–1937), Andre Marchal (1894–1980), Gaston Litaize (1909–1991), and Jean Langlais (1907–1991), as well as one of the current organists at Notre Dame de Paris, Jean-Pierre Leguay (b. 1939). England has also produced brilliant blind organists in the 19th and 20th centuries, including Alfred Hollins (1865–1942) and David A. Liddle (b. 1960), who was a student of Marchal and who currently enjoys an international performing career. Yet it is a tradition which goes back centuries: 14th-century Italian Francesco Landini (?-1397), Spanish baroque master Antonio de Cabezon (1510–1566) and the Englishmen John Stanley (1712–1786) are prominent examples, and one could argue that even Johann Sebastian Bach and George Frederic Handel, who lost their sight late in life but presumably continued to play and compose, should be included in this discussion, along with the great American popular organist George Wright (1920–1998), who likewise lost his sight late in life but continued to present concerts and make sound recordings until his death. Blind composer Frances McCollin (1892-1960) won the Clemson Prize from the American Guild of Organists in 1918. She studied organ with another blind musician, David Duffield Wood (1838-1910), the organist at Philadelphia's St. Stephen's Episcopal Church for many years.
In 19th century France and England, piano tuners were frequently blind. The first blind piano tuner is thought to be Claude Montal, who taught himself how to tune a piano while studying at L'Institut National des Jeunes Aveugles in 1830. At first Montal's teachers were skeptical, doubting that a blind man could actually perform the necessary mechanical tasks. Montal's skill was undeniable, however, and he was soon asked to teach classes in tuning to his fellow students. Eventually, he also overcame public prejudice, and landed several prestigious jobs as a tuner for professors and professional musicians. Montal's success paved the way for other blind tuners, both in France and in England, where Montal's example and teaching methods were adopted by Thomas Rhodes Armitage. Today the image of the blind piano tuner is so ingrained that people in England sometimes express surprise when they encounter a piano tuner who can see. An organization of blind piano tuners remains active in Britain.
Blind musicians have made a significant contribution to American popular music. This is particularly true in blues, gospel, jazz, and other predominantly African American forms – perhaps because discrimination at the time made it more difficult for black blind people to find other employment. In any case, the achievement of blind African-Americans in music is extensive. The first recorded gospel sanctified barrelhouse piano player, Arizona Dranes, was blind, as was Al Hibbler and Ray Charles, one of the most important figures in the creation of soul music. Art Tatum, commonly cited as the greatest jazz pianist of all time, was also almost blind. Stevie Wonder, who was blind from birth, has recorded more than thirty U.S. top ten hits and won twenty-two Grammy Awards (the most ever won by a solo artist in history).
However, blind black musicians are still most strongly associated with the country blues. The first successful male country blues performer, Blind Lemon Jefferson was blind, as were many other country bluesmen, including Blind Willie McTell, Blind Willie Johnson, Sonny Terry, and Blind Boy Fuller. The figure of the black country bluesman became so iconic that when Eddie Lang, non-blind jazz guitarist, wanted to choose a black pseudonym for purposes of recording blues records with Lonnie Johnson, he naturally settled on Blind Willie Dunn.
Ronnie Milsap is a white Grammy Award-winning American singer, songwriter, and musician. He began his career as a heavy R&B soul artist but is most known for his country and pop music career that followed influencing countless artists throughout the years. Jeff Healey was a blind Juno Award-winning and Grammy Award-nominated Canadian blues-rock vocalist and guitarist who attained musical and personal popularity, particularly in the 1980s and 1990s. Legendary American guitarist and songwriter Doc Watson was blinded before his first birthday from an eye infection, and went on to become a highly influential musician in American bluegrass and folk music, known for his proficient flatpicking and fingerpicking skills on guitar as well as his extensive knowledge of traditional American songs.
Italian pop tenor, Andrea Bocelli, who was born with congenital glaucoma and completely lost his sight at the age of 12, after a football accident, is the biggest-selling singer in the history of Classical music, with worldwide sales exceeding 70 million copies.
In 2009, Japanese Nobuyuki Tsujii, at age 20, became the first blind pianist to win the top prize at a major international competition, the 13th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. He was also awarded the Beverley Taylor Smith Award for the Best Performance of a New Work. He played all twelve of Frédéric Chopin's Op. 10 Études as part of his performance in the preliminaries. Born blind, Tsujii developed his own technique for learning complex classical piano works. With videos of his piano performances widely viewable on the Internet, Tsujii's competition win has made him an international sensation. As of 2010, Tsujii's discography includes ten CDs, some of which have sold over 100,000 copies. As a Van Cliburn winner, Tsujii has been performing in concerts all over the world.
Composers as diverse and exceptional as Francesco Landini, Antonio de Cabezón, and Joaquín Rodrigo suffered from childhood-onset blindness. In a unique mix of circumstances, the blind Viennese composer Rudolf Braun wrote works for piano left hand for the one-armed pianist Paul Wittgenstein.
One of the prominent blind South Indian carnatic musicians is M. Chandrasekaran, a violin maestro who has received some of the highest awards by many musical institutions in India. His musical career spans over six decades and he has travelled to perform in many music festivals all over India and the world.