Arts and Culture
4:26 pm
Fri February 1, 2013

You think you know "Blind" Boone? New writings shed light on the music and the man

John William "Blind" Boone, pictured with his wife, Eugenia.
Credit Blind Boone Heritage Foundation
Blind Boone's story and an interview with co-editors Mary Barile and Chris Montgomery feature in this week's edition of Off the Clock. Listen, here:

So, you know your Missouri and CoMo history, and you think you know all about “ragtime” musician Blind Boone, yeah? Think again. If you think he was all ragtime, and he was blind, you still might have a lot to learn.

It turns out John William “Blind” Boone was one of the first musical composers to blend European classical styles with folk music. He took African-American and Afro-Caribbean folk styles such as plantation melodies and minstrel tunes, and put them in classical forms, then performed the pieces in concert halls. 

And, he’s perhaps not so much a ragtime musician - his music really didn't fall into the ragtime genre during his era - as he is an early innovator that created some of the musical building blocks that led to not only ragtime, but blues and jazz.

Blind Boone did all of this as an African-American musician, during a time of institutionalized racism. Boone partnered with his manager, a Columbia African-American businessman named John Lange, and the two rose above the stereotypical caricatures that limited many African-American artists at the time, to create a unique partnership and music.

The 1890s was a tough era to be an African-American musician, especially one with a physical disability. Audiences flocked to see curiosities, and racist stereotypes were also an easy sell. Boone scholars are fascinated by Boone’s ability, with Lange, to navigate these problems and perhaps even use them to their advantage by gaining access to audiences, and then transcending those limitations to truly innovate, musically.

Compare the career of Boone to “Blind Tom,” a blind musician who drew audiences in search of curiosity. He may have been autistic and became the subject of a rather unfortunate piece of writing by Mark Twain who encountered him on a train. In the 1890s, even the cutting edge cultural critics were vulnerable to their culture’s intolerance of disabilities and race.

Merit, Not Sympathy, Wins: The Life and Times of Blind Boone brings all of these elements together into a sort of reconsideration of the music and life of Blind Boone. Co-edited by Mary Barile and Chris Montgomery, the book also includes a brief biography of Boone by one of his contemporaries, an African-American writer named Melissa Fuell Cuther, who performed in Boone’s Concert Company.

“I’m always amazed at how much of his music has lasted,” says Barile, “because he composed at a time when racism was rampant. Even though he was a popular performer, it didn’t negate the fact that he was black – he couldn’t stay at the hotels, he couldn’t ride in certain railroad cars.”

Both Barile and Montgomery believe more attention is warranted, and eventually coming, for Boone and his music, and they compare him to the life and music of Scott Joplin – pointing out that in their day, Boone was far better known than Joplin.

In spite of being born an African-American, blind and in extremely difficult circumstances, Montgomery says, “there’s no indication he ever felt self pity, and he went on, using his talents and this wonderful partnership with John Lange, he went on to become a national celebrity, a national talent, and a national treasure, really.”

Chris Montgomery and Mary Barile talk about their book Saturday, Feb. 2nd at the State Historical Society of Missouri on MU campus. And you can also hear them at the Missouri History Museum in St. Louis, on Sun Feb 17th and Monday, Feb 18th. All proceeds from the book go to support the restoration of Blind Boone’s home. You can learn more and hear the music of Blind Boone at www.blindboonehome.com.

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