|John William Boone aka "Blind Boone"|
John William Boone, popularly known as Blind Boone, is arguably Boone Countys' most famous musician. He was one of Missouris' three famous Ragtime composers and piano players along side with Scott Joplin (from Sedalia) and James Scott (of Kansas City)
Born free 17 May 1864 in Miami Missouri (located in Saline County) near the Seventh Militia Federal Army Camp, his mother Rachel Boone had high hopes for her son John William Boone. His mother was a "contraband", a slave who was freed during the war, and was serving as a cook for the army. Rachel claimed to be a descendant of Daniel Boone and so took his surname as her own. It is believed Boones father was a white regimental bugler. When the war ended, she and her son moved to Warrensburg Missouri where she cleaned houses for a living. At the tender age of six months, he contracted "brain fever", quite likely a form of meningitis, and to reduce the swelling in the skull and save his life, the doctors removed his eyes.
Never the less, Blind Boone refused to give up and became attracted to music. Starting at a young age, Boone played mouth instruments, a tin whistle and later a mouth organ much to the delight of the neighborhood and was often "invited" to perform for local families. He learned to imitate any sounds he heard, be it musical notes of a tune, or birds in the trees. The prominent families and city fathers became enamored with Boone and wanting him to have a future, had him enrolled at the age of 9 in the St. Louis School for the Blind. He was sent there alone to become educated and learn a trade.
While there, Boone was introduced to a magnificent musical instrument, the piano. Fellow student Enoch Donley encouraged Boone and introduced him to the basic concepts in playing the piano. He would spend as many hours as possible playing this beautiful instrument. He became so fascinated with playing the piano, that his studies lagged and he neglected his duties. The tedium of making brooms could not hold a candle to the magic of the piano. He reportedly would sneak away to visit the bordellos of St. Louis to hear the popular music of the day, Ragtime. This disregard for his "trade" studies ultimately lead to him being dismissed from the school in 1876. Boone, on his own at the age of 12, moved around St. Louis earning what he could by playing his mouth organ and whatever other instruments were at hand. When a local orchestra conductor (some accounts say he was a train conductor), A. J. Kerry, encountered him he took pity on the sad state of this young boy and arranged for a train trip home to his mother in Warrensburg. When Boone arrived home he found his mother married to Harrison Hendrix.
Boone was not content to sit and do nothing and soon organized his own "band". The young boys were using just a mouth organ, triangle, and tambourine to perform their productions. They traveled around central Missouri performing wherever they could. These instruments were not satisfactory to display the talents of Boone and the troop soon fell on hard times. Boone was "found" by Mark Cromwell, a manager of less than honorable reputation. While Cromwell got Boone work, he did not always pay the bills. Many times Boone was forced to walk from town to town for his performances. It is even reported that Cromwell even used Boone as a "stake" when gambling at cards. Boone was finally rescued from Cromwell by his stepfather and ministers from Fayette and Glascow.
In the Christmas season of 1879, Boone was invited to perform in a festival at the Second Baptist Church in Columbia, sponsored by successful builder and contractor John Lange Jr. Lange was so impressed by Boone, that Boone was invited back to Columbia in January 1880. Around the age of 16 Boone had found a new manager in John Lange. Lange took proper care of Boone and negotiated an agreement with Boones mother that as partial compensation for being Boones manager, he would see to it that Boone would get a formal musical education. Boone was enrolled in Christian College in Columbia and began a classical music education under Anna Heuerman. In 1880 Boone also had the opportunity to meet an accomplished pianist, Tom "Blind Tom" Bethune who encouraged Boone to continue on a career of music.
The newly formed J. W. Boone Music Company adopted the motto "Merit, not sympathy, wins". Boone began composing his own works and played them in addition to the wide range he memorized. His range of work was dramatic and he cover the breadth of spiritual works, popular music, such as Ragtime, to classical. His memory was astounding and demonstrated that he had the entire Franz Liszt piano repertoire memorized. Boone liked to challenge musicians to play a piece of music, which Boone would immediately replay exactly as just played, including any errors the original musician had made. Lange offered $1000 to anyone who could play something Boone could not replay exactly, and he reportedly never had to pay the wager. Not only did Boone have a memory for music, but he could remember the voice or handshake of virtually everyone he met throughout his 47 year concert career.
Bear in mind that the life of a musician has never been an easy life. In this day, a horse and wagon was used to haul the piano and other equipment from town to town. Boones troupe, including singers, traveled all over the midwest. In 1885 his performances typically earned $150 to $200 a night, sometimes as much as $600. One of the singers, Melissa Fuell, wrote a chronicle of the travels of the J. W. Boone Music Company during her years with the group.
Boone played a wide range of music including Plantation melodies, spiritual songs, Ragtime and Classical. One of Boones novel talents was his ability to imitate other sounds with the piano, be it birds, train engines, whistles, horse and buggy, calliope, banjo, fiddle, music box, guitar, fife and drum, any sounds of the day. One of his trademark pieces was a piece he wrote to commemorate the great tornado that struck Marshfield Missouri on 18 April 1880. That tornado is listed as the 15th deadliest tornado of all (recorded) time. Only one tornado on the list of 20 deadliest occurred before the Marshfield tornado, so it had quite an impact on the citizens at the time. By some accounts, the Marshfield Tornado (the tune) was so difficult that it could not be reproduced on the automatic piano rolls because it had too many notes and was too difficult.
Partially because he asked so much out of his piano and also because he was a big man (nearly 250 pounds on a 5 foot frame), Boone was hard on his equipment and could easily ruin a piano during a single piece of music. The Chickering Piano Co. made several pianos especially for him. By 1915 he had worn out 16 pianos. The last piano made for him in 1891 was a 9-foot concert grand made of solid oak.
Boone married Langes youngest sister, Eugenia Lange, in 1889. They had no children together. Boone was one of the first black artists to author mechanical piano rolls by his agreement with QRS Piano Roll Company in 1912. From his youth Boone was always involved in the church. He have generously to black churches and schools and is reported to put more roofs on churches in central Missouri then anyone else.
Lange successfully managed Boones career to international notoriety. Boone was instrumental in getting the audience to accept American Negro music played on the concert stage. By 1916 the group was touring the whole US, Canada, Mexico and reportedly the United Kingdom (although there are no supporting documents for the UK). Some reports say Boone gave 8,600 concerts during the years of 1880-1915, where some estimates are as high as 26,000. His annual income was a much as $17,000, quite a sum for the period.
When Lange died in 1916 (or 1919?), Boone took his death hard and his career slumped and his creative juices seem to wain. In the 1920's tours declined, partially because of Langes death, but also because of the increasing popularity of talking movies and radio. Wayne B. Allen took over management of Boones career after Lange died, and published much of his works.
Boones last concert was 31 May 1927. Boone passed away of a heart attack on 4 October 1927 with an estate of only $132.65 and was buried in an unmarked grave in the Columbia Cemetery. His wife, Eugenia, passed away shortly after on 16 March 1931. His last words are reported to be "Blindness has not affected my disposition. Many times I regard it as a blessing, for had I not been blind, I would not have given the inspiration to the world that I have. I have shown that no matter how a person is afflicted, there is something that he can do that is worthwhile."
After his death his piano was moved to the Frederick Douglass school in Columbia. Local legend had it that the ghost of Boone would play his favorite Chickering piano in the Douglass school at twilight. The Joplin Piano Co restored the Chickering for the Blind Boone Memorial Concert in 1961. A memorial benefit in 1971 raised the funds to install a gravestone for him and his wife Eugenia.
Blind Boone is still in everyones mind today. In 1961 the Blind Boone Memorial Foundation was formed. Downtown Columbia has the J. W. "Blind" Boone Community Center, established in 1963, and the Blind Boone Highsteppers are well known for their fantastic performances. His home at 10 North Fourth Street in Columbia, has been used by the Stuart Parker Memorial Funeral home and the Warren Funeral home over the years. In 1999 the City of Columbia and the John William Boone Heritage Foundation have agreed to the purchase the property to use as a cultural heritage museum. The home is now on the national register of historic places. By 1999 the Boone County Historical Society had acquired the Maplewood home and established the Blind Boone Room, housing the 1891 Chickering piano as its centerpiece. Blind Boone never let his lack of eyesight limit is vision of how music can engage and delight everyone from the youngest to the oldest and he remains an inspiration to everyone.
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Last updated 28 July 2001