The inability to see did not prevent “Blind” Boone from becoming a nationally known concert pianist whose performances combined classical music and ragtime. As an African American, born in 1864 to a former slave, he overcame great hardship, poverty and discrimination to use his talent to inspire others.
His mother, Rachel Boone, had been working in a federal army camp in north central Missouri as a cook during the Civil War. After her son’s birth, the young mother and Willy, as she called him, moved to Warrensburg to work for several families. Willy came down with cerebral meningitis when he was six months old which left him blind.
Despite the fact that he could not see, his musical talent was developing. People started giving him small instruments including a harmonica and triangle. Willy and his friends formed a band and earned money playing for different events. His mother knew her son needed to be in a specialized school but she could not afford it. A former senator from Missouri, Francis Cockrell, convinced the county authorities to pay the train fare and all fees at the Missouri School for the Blind in St. Louis. Some of the women in Warrensburg sewed clothes Willy would need for school. He boarded the train for a 225-mile trip to St. Louis that would change his life.
The Missouri School for the Blind encouraged students to be independent by teaching them skills to do so. Teachers wanted Boone to learn Braille and develop a skill of making brooms to earn some money but it was no use. He loved school but did not want to make brooms. Instead, he would quietly leave his classes and go to where the older students were practicing piano. It was during one of these sessions that a white student noticed Boone could play the classical music by ear he heard in the practice sessions.
The student started giving Boone piano lessons. Even after only hearing something once, the prodigy could play it perfectly. He soon was playing for social gatherings in the superintendent’s home, and for churches and events during school breaks back in Warrensburg.
He was hired by John Lange, a concert hall owner in Columbia, Missouri to play a Christmas program. The owner later wrote to Boone’s mother for permission to manage his career. She was to receive a monthly portion of her son’s earnings until he turned 21 when he would be a partner in the company. Lange was true to his word and the Blind Boone Company was successful.
Another blind pianist, Thomas “Blind Tom” Wiggins, came to Columbia to give a concert. He, like Boone, could play back any composition he heard. During his performance, the audience was challenged to play back Wiggins’ music. Boone took up the challenge and played what he heard perfectly.
When he went on tour, he would often have to travel with a piano because the places where he would be performing did not have one. The town of Marshfield, Missouri had been hit by a tornado a few days before his arrival. Close to 100 people were killed and more were injured. Hardly any buildings were left standing. The pianist composed The Marshfield Tornado. Some of the sounds were too realistic and caused some of the listeners to leave in a panic. Concert proceeds were donated to help with rebuilding the town. Boone kept the tornado composition as part of his program but always had it as the last piece.
Boone went to Cedar Rapids, Iowa to study with Mary R. Sampson, a piano teacher. Under her guidance, he developed better technique and learned new classical music repertoire. His manager wanted people to recognize the pianist for his talent and not out of curiosity or sympathy. He started printing the motto “Merit, Not Sympathy, Wins,” on concert programs. Boone would play classical music to please one part of his audience and then played Negro spirituals and folk tunes for the other part of his audience. This way, both white and black could experience the music that they liked. He referred to this as having the “cookies on the lower shelf.”
Blind Boone combined classical music with popular music. Scholars believe his syncopated rhythms were the forerunner of ragtime. Scott Joplin, the African-American pianist and composer of ragtime works, was a contemporary of Boone’s and also lived part of his life in Missouri. With a program that was part classical music and part ragtime, the blind pianist was playing to sold out crowds.
Segregation laws were still in force and the black audiences had to sit in the worst seats. Some hotels refused to give Boone and his company members lodging so they would stay in people’s homes. Once, when some of the company were refused lodging at a hotel, they stayed with an elderly female relative. Boone heard that she had an unpaid mortgage of several hundred dollars so he paid it for her.
His wife traveled with him on tour and was the company treasurer. They purchased a house in Columbia. When he was not touring, he still practiced six hours a day. He was one of the first black artists to be recorded by the a piano roll company, ORS, in 1912. His composition, The Marshfield Tornado, was too complicated musically and was never recorded or written down.
He donated money to churches, schools and to countless people who had helped him. He was quoted as saying that he regarded his blindness to be a “blessing” because he could not have been able to inspire the world. He believed that no matter what the affliction, a person can make something worthwhile out of his life.
After being on tour for 47 seasons, Boone retired June 1927. He died later that same year after suffering a heart attack. He was 63 years old. He had $132.65 left plus his home in Columbia. He was buried in an unmarked grave in a local cemetery. His music was all but forgotten for several years but in 1961, a concert of his music was presented at the University of Missouri in Columbia. In 1971, a tombstone was placed on his grave. His home is now on the National Register of Historic Places and his Chickering piano is on display at the Boone County Historical Society in Columbia. Blind Boone combined his African-American heritage with his ability as a pianist to play classical music and ragtime to mixed audiences under the same roof. There is a ragtime festival every year in Columbia that bears his name.
By: Cynthia Collins