John William “Blind” Boone
1864 – 1927
A child piano prodigy, Boone became a successful musician who traveled the nation ten months a year for over four and a half decades. While Boone is primarily remembered as a ragtime composer, he wrote all types of music including popular tunes and light classical. His concerts spanned all types of musical styles as well.
Boone was born in a Union army camp outside Miami, Missouri, on May 17, 1864. His mother Rachel was a contraband slave traveling with the military and working as a cook. Legend has it that his father was the regiment’s white bugler, William Belcher. Belcher deserted before his son was born.
While he was still less than a year old, Boone contracted meningitis. At the time, doctors believed they could ease pressure on his brain by removing his eyes. After the war, he grew up in Warrensburg where he didn’t let his blindness prevent him from organizing a tin whistle band made up of local boys.
Recognizing young Willie Boone’s talents, several prominent citizens of Warrensburg paid for the nine-year-old boy to travel to St. Louis to study at the Missouri School for the Blind. It was there that he first had the opportunity to play the piano. Boone was expelled from the school after making frequent trips to hear music played in St. Louis’s Tenderloin District. After that, young Boone made several unsuccessful attempts to make a living as a musician.
Finally, under the management of Columbia road contractor and businessman, John Lange, Jr., Boone’s career began to flourish. One of Boone’s earliest concerts in Columbia was with an older musician named Thomas “Blind Tom” Wiggins. Wiggins had a phenomenal memory and could play any song note-for-note after one hearing. At the concert, fifteen-year-old Boone made his reputation by flawlessly matching Wiggins’s memory for music.
The Blind Boone Company toured with the motto “Merit, Not Sympathy, Wins.” Lange wanted the public to pay to see Boone because he was a talented musician, not because he was a blind man who happened to play the piano.
In 1889, Boone married his manager’s younger sister Eugenia Lange. The couple moved into a home at 10 North Fourth Street in Columbia and lived there until John’s death in 1927. Boone was generous with his money and gave freely to those in need. He supported Christian (now Columbia) College and First Christian Church, which rewarded his generosity by making him their first black member.
After Lange died in 1916, Boone was never able to match his earlier success. He retired at the end of the 1927 touring season and died a few months later in Warrensburg.