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John W Boone and the Blind Boone Concert Company

John W. Boone, initially known as Willie, was born in a Union Army camp in Miami, Missouri, on May 17, 1864. His mother, Rachel Boone, was a former slave who worked as a cook in the camp. His father was William Belcher, the camp bugler. Rachel and her son moved to Warrensburg when he was an infant. She had secured work as a servant. At six months, he developed cerebral meningitis. A doctor removed his eyes in the belief that doing so would remove pressure on the brain. This was the only known treatment for the often fatal disease. Today it can be treated with antibiotics.

Boone began making music very early. He first made percussion music with sticks, gifts of a whistle, a triangle, and a harmonica soon expanded his repertoire. As a young child, he formed a band, and they were paid to perform at parades and special events. There was no opportunity in Warrensburg for a blind child to get an education or learn a trade. A former senator convinced county officials to fund his train ticket and pay his tuition for the School for the Blind in St. Louis. Some of the townswomen made him clothes.

He began school at age nine after traveling alone to St. Louis. There were both white and Black students and the program focused on teaching the children to be independent. Broom making was taught so that the pupils would be able to support themselves. Boone was not interested in learning Braille or to make brooms. He wanted to learn to play the piano like the more advanced students. Another student gave up part of his lesson time for Boone.

A new school superintendent decided that the Black students would not be allowed to play the piano. Boone started skipping school to listen to and play with Black musicians in saloons. He was expelled because of his repeated absences and ended up living on the streets and playing music. A kindly, white train conductor helped Boone return to Warrensburg.

Boone played piano and formed a band of street musicians in Warrensburg to help support his family. An unscrupulous promoter, Mark Cromwell, lured Boone to agree to perform on the road with him and promised concert engagements. In reality, Boone was playing the harmonica on the street in towns across the state and received none of the earnings. Cromwell bet with and lost Boone in a card game. Boone was kept locked up until his stepfather found and freed him.

Fifteen-year-old Boone met John Lange in 1879. Lange hired him for a Christmas program in Columbia. He got permission from Boone’s mother to take over Boone’s training and career. Rachel would receive part of Boone’s earnings until he was twenty-one, and then Boone would become a partner. Lange was a man of his word. They traveled with a small piano since many of the venues did not have a piano. The company was unusual for the time as not only were all of the performers Black but so was the management.

Boone was also a composer. His most famous composition was the “Marshfield Tornado:’ In 1880, a short time before he was scheduled to play Marshfield, a tornado came through and devastated the town. Boone was inspired to create the song, which included realistic tornado sounds. Even though the company was not doing well, they decided to play a benefit concert for the town. The composition, was so realistic that the audience fled thinking there was a tornado. He kept the piece as part of his program, but from then on played it last in case other audiences reacted the same way.

In 1883, Boone took additional piano lessons to refine his technique and to learn more classical pieces. Given Boone’s blindness, he either had to hear a piece or compose it himself. He had to hear a piece only once to be able to duplicate it perfectly even years later. These lessons helped his career develop further. He played a variety of music so that there was something for everyone, including classical, spirituals, and popular and folk tunes. He is credited as being a major influence on the development of ragtime music.

Boone played for both white and Black audiences, although generally there was segregated seating or separate performances. In 1912, Boone became one of the first Black performers to be recorded by the QRS Piano Roll company. Piano rolls were punched rolls of paper that, when placed in a player piano, played the composition exactly as written. Boone recorded eleven rolls. Two of the rolls were of original compositions. Unfortunately, because his compositions were so complex, it was difficult to record them accurately. They were not able to record the “Marshfield Tornado:’ It was also never copied to sheet music.

Boone married Eugenia Lange, John Lange’s sister. His success allowed them to buy a home in Columbia. They furnished it with several pianos including a player piano. The player piano allowed Boone to learn new compositions, and he practiced six hours daily when not touring. He was known for his generosity, especially to children. All children were welcome at his performances, whether or not they could pay. Boone retired in 1927 after touring for forty-seven years. He died later the same year at age 63.

Written by: Joan Hampton-Porter, Curator of the History Museum on the Square

Image Caption:
Shown is part of the cover of the program from the Blind Boone Concert Company’s 1907 appearance in Walnut Grove, Missouri.

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