John William Boone

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Missouri-born African American pianist and composer John William "Blind" Boone was born to a slave mother who had taken her name from the family that once owned her -- relatives of American frontiersman…
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Missouri-born African American pianist and composer John William "Blind" Boone was born to a slave mother who had taken her name from the family that once owned her -- relatives of American frontiersman Daniel Boone. Boone was born in a Union Army camp, and judging from his appearance his father was probably a white man. Boone lost his sight in infancy owing to disease, and afterward his mother resettled in Warrensburg, MO. Boone demonstrated such aptitude for musical instruments in childhood that in 1873 a group of prominent Warrensburg citizens raised the money to send him to the St. Louis School for the Blind.

Boone studied at the School until 1876, when he ran away and was abducted by an unscrupulous promoter, who took Boone on as a sideshow attraction under the most miserable of circumstances. Boone was eventually rescued, but this early experience fully grounded him in the rigors of life on the road. In 1880, African American entrepreneur John Lange Jr. engaged Boone as a professional concert artist. This was the beginning of a career for Boone that stretched into 46 seasons, with Lange as manager for the first 36. Their slogan was "Merit, not sympathy." One of Boone's first professional dates was in a "cutting contest" against Thomas MacLeod "Blind Tom" Bethune.

At the time, comparisons were frequently drawn between Blind Boone and Blind Tom. Both pianists could replicate practically any music played to them, and both featured original specialties that were designed to amaze their audiences, such as Bethune's The Battle of Manassas or Boone's now-lost Marshfield Tornado (1880). But Boone enjoyed considerable popularity as a touring artist even beyond World War I, whereas Blind Tom had dropped out of the concert scene by 1900. Boone's extensive repertoire consisted of hymns, classical music (including Bach, Beethoven, and famously, Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 6), folk-style plantation songs, and ragtime numbers. Boone toured ten months out of the year, usually in the American south and Midwest, although he completed a tour of the Eastern seaboard around 1917.

Of 75 original compositions known to have been a part of Boone's concert repertoire, only about 30 are known to have survived. However Boone also made a considerable number of piano rolls for QRS, Vocalstyle, and Imperial, and a dozen of these performances have come to light. Blind Boone was the first African American pianist to make hand-played piano rolls, the most important being his two Southern Rag Medleys. Boone's examples of ragtime are stylistically archetypal and emphasize the folk roots of syncopated piano music. As such, Blind Boone's rags are viewed as ragtime in its earliest form, likely played as it was heard before the first ragtime sheet music appeared around 1895. Ragtime historian Edward A. Berlin has discovered in Boone's Southern Rag Medley No. 2: Strains from Flat Branch (1909) the use of boogie-woogie bass figures, apparently the earliest known use of this device in a published work. Boone also recorded classical selections, such as his own Sparkling Springs, and is known to have made phonograph records in St. Louis in 1925, but these were not released and are not yet located.

Blind Boone is regarded as a maverick performer, successfully bringing a wide variety of classical and popular music to segregated American audiences both white and black. His career declined in the 1920s as a result of deepening racial divisions within his audience and the encroachment of jazz, which he derided as "foolish talk." Boone's 1890 Chickering piano is preserved at the Boone County Historical Society in Columbia, MO.