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Tue, 05.17.1864

‘Blind Boone’, Musical Prodigy born

John "Blind" Boone

John William “Blind” Boone was born on this date in 1864. He was a Black 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 white pioneer Daniel Boone owned her.  She used the surname Boone on the 1870 Federal Census.  The regiment's bugler was his father, but they never knew each other. Shortly after Boone was born, his mother moved to Warrensburg, Missouri, where she earned a living by cleaning the homes of prominent white 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. One way to accomplish that was by surgical removal of the eyes. The operation was performed. John William lost his sight but not his brain capacity and intelligence.  Greatly loved, young 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 the sounds of birds.  Soon John organized a band with instruments that included a tin whistle, drum, and tambourine. Rachel sought ways to educate John and successfully recruited the town's assistant.

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 any musical piece he heard on the piano. Despite his musical gifts, instead, the school was teaching him to make brooms.  As an adolescent, 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, but a conductor befriended him 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. 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, in which he was featured with a second sightless Black pianist, Tom Wiggins Bethune, known as 'Blind Tom'.  John William Boone's professional career was launched with the event, and John Lange, Jr. took on his manager role.

Lange began by sending John William to Christian College in Columbia to further his musicianship, introducing him to European classical composers.  Further, Lange's organizational skills were outstanding. To transcend the stigma of disability, Lange adopted 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 advanced men, who would travel to towns to advertise Boone's abilities and make the necessary arrangements before the great man's arrival. 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 the US, Canada, 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 ten months each year, with six weekly concerts, 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, at one time, had had an income of $17,000 per year.  He 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 on his head. He had a very happy and warm personality, and the 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 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.

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