"Blind" Boone, a musical prodigy


John "Blind" Boone
Date: 
Tue, 1864-05-17

John William “Blind” Boone was born on this date in 1864. He was an African American musician.

Born at a federal army camp near Miami, Missouri, his mother, Rachel, was a runaway slave who had taken refuge with the regiment of the Union Army as a cook. The descendants of pioneer Daniel Boone owned her. The regiment's bugler fathered the child, but they were never to know each other. Shortly after Boone was born, his mother moved to Warrensburg, Missouri where she earned a living by cleaning the homes of prominent families. At six months of age, the Young Boone became very ill with "brain fever."

Only a very radical surgical procedure offered a chance to save the child's life releasing pressure from the swelling of the brain. There was one way to accomplish that, by surgical removal of the eyes. The operation was performed. John William lost his sight, but not his very extensive intelligence. Greatly loved, John William was a happy, musically gifted child. At age three, he was capable of beating out rhythms. He had a tin whistle at age five with which he could play tunes and imitate sounds in nature like birds. Soon John organized a band with instruments that included tin whistle, drum, and tambourine. Rachel sought ways to have John educated and succeeded in recruiting the town's assistance.

Warrenberg's city fathers purchased the railroad ticket that brought John William to the Missouri School for the Blind in St. Louis for two and one-half years. He quickly demonstrated his ability to reproduce on the piano any musical piece he heard. Despite his musical giftedness, the school was teaching him to make brooms. Driven to find outlets for his interests and talents, Boone would sneak out to the 'adult' area of town to hear the Ragtime piano. School officials finally expelled him from school but a conductor befriended and allowed him to ride the train home in exchange for entertaining passengers by playing his harmonica. In Warrensburg, Boone lived in the Black community for the first time in his life. Rachel had married widower Harrison Hendrix, the father of five, when John was eight years old. Wanderlust gripped him, however, and he strayed from home repeatedly at times, with regrettable consequences. The Christmas holidays of 1879 were to bring dramatic positive change to Boone’s life.

The gifted young musician was invited to participate in a festival at the Second Baptist Church in Columbia. The event was an annual gift to the community by a very successful builder and contractor, John Lange, Jr. Boone was invited back for a concert in March, 1880 one in which he was featured with a second sightless black pianist, Tom Bethune known as 'Blind Tom'. John William Boone's professional career was launched with the event and John Lange, Jr. took on the role of his manager.

Lange began by sending John William to Christian College in Columbia to further his musicianship introducing him to the European classical composers. Further, Lange's organizational skills were outstanding. To transcend the stigma of disability, Lange adapted the motto, "Merit, not sympathy, wins" for the J. W. Boone Music Co. To make significant Boone’s capacity to reproduce anything he heard, Lange made it known that one thousand dollars would be given to anyone who could stump him by playing something the artist could not play back accurately.

Boone and Lange never had to make good on the offer. Lang also hired advance men, who would travel to towns to advertise Boone's abilities and make the necessary arrangements prior to the arrival of the great man. His career peaked between 1885 and 1916, earning between $150 and $600 on their best nights. His company trained many young singers and music agents. By 1916, Boone toured US, Canada, and Mexico and (reportedly) England, Scotland and Wales but no documentation has yet been found for the overseas events.

Lange wrote about the period from 1880 to 1915 where they would travel 10 months each year, with 6 concerts per week, a total of 8, 650 concerts. Distance traveled averaged 20 miles per day or 216,000 miles and they slept in 8,250 beds. Boone played mainly in churches and concert halls and to segregated audiences. After he became popular, piano companies provided the pianos so he did not have to haul them by horse and wagon. He wore out 16 pianos by 1915. Boone married Lange's youngest sister in 1889 and never recovered from Lange's death in 1916.

He moved into a permanent home in Columbia Missouri, which is now on the national register. Besides a classical repertoire, Boone played plantation melodies, religious songs and Ragtime. He sang minstrel tunes/plantation songs, wrote and sang 'coon' songs as all Black performers did that came out of the minstrel stereotypes of earlier years. Religious songs included "Nearer My God to Thee" and others. In 1912, he was contacted by the QRS Piano Roll Company and became one of the first black artists to cut piano rolls. Boone gave generously to black churches and schools, and at one time he had had an income of $17,000 per year. Boone gave many benefit concerts to further Black schools and churches in the Columbia area. He was just 5 feet tall but was a very impressive figure. Because he could not walk without guidance, he frequently carried a child upon his shoulders as a navigator. He had an astounding memory and was called a walking encyclopedia.

Boone could tell a child's age by putting his hand upon a child's head. H e had a very happy and warm personality and children loved him. Boone also belonged to fraternal organizations, yet his only family was his wife and his mother Rachel who died in 1901. After 1920, competition from movies and radio made it very difficult to secure bookings. Boone did a final big tour in the East in 1919 and 1920. His last concert was on May 31, 1927. He died of a heart attack on October 4, 1927. The funeral was a major event in the black community in Columbia, Missouri.

Reference:
The African American Atlas
Black History & Culture an Illustrated Reference
by Molefi K. Asanta and Mark T. Mattson
Macmillam USA, Simon & Schuster, New York
ISBN 0-02-864984-2

To Become a Musician or Singer

Person / name: 

Boone, John William