Rachel Boone, a former slave was working at the Federal Camp of the 7th Militia, Company I at Miami, Missouri when she gave birth to her son, naming him John William Boone. Soon after his birth on May 17th, 1864, Rachel brought her baby to Warrensburg, Missouri where she found employment working in homes of the more prominent citizens of the day.
A most amazing and inspirational man! Composer, concert pianist, philanthropist, philosopher, mentor. (Make sure to visit Mike Shaw's Page for more information!) This is the very short version of his amazing story!
Rachel Boone Hendrix
At only 6 months of age, John, or "Willie" as he came to be known, had to have surgery to save him from the ravages of what they termed "Brain fever". In order to save his life, the doctors were forced to remove his eyes and sew the lids shut. He was saved and went on to live a most amazing life.
Willie showed a great deal of talent even as a small child. He was able to recreate the sounds of birds and drum out beats as a toddler. When he reached around five years of age, he gathered some friends and started a little band. The boys played at picnics and around the neighborhood with their tin whistle, comb, and the like. As time went on, Willie was known as a bright, talented boy, and was well liked by everyone in the community. He didn't let his blindness keep him from making his way around town or pursuing his interests!
During his youth, the local citizenry decided to help Willie get an education by sending him to a school for the blind in St. Louis, Missouri. The community, which included persons like Senator Francis Cockrell, funded the trip to St. Louis on the train, while the women made him clothes. The black and white citizens worked together on this and much like his professional life, Boone in his youth seemed to be able to bridge all gaps between the races. Unable to see the differences in skin color, he was able to transcend these differences, and later, influence change in attitudes.
Senator Francis Marion Cockrell
After studying music at the school for the blind for some time, a new supervisor changed the way the school dealt with the black children and Willie was forced to start making brooms. Terribly bored with this activity, Willie started running away at night and found his way to the "tenderloin district" of St. Louis where the brothels and bars were located. In this area he was able to spend time around musicians that were playing Ragtime music. This was not the Ragtime we know today, but was a form of music with a much more African cadence. He learned much from his excursions, but was eventually expelled from school and forced to live on the street. Willie played music on the streets and at the train depot. He nearly starved before a kindly train conductor took pity on him and returned him to Warrensburg and the arms of his mother.
Willie met with many adventures during his young life. He played music, formed bands and even taught music. When he was a teen, he performed at a church in Columbia, Missouri and met a successful black contractor named John Lange. After some time, Lange asked Rachel Boone if her son could come to St. Louis to perform professionally and the beginning of a long friendship and partnership was formed. Boone received some formal training at this time and learned to play classical music. He had a gift that enabled him to comprehend a musical piece when he heard it played and repeat the performance note for note. This skill was tested many times over the years; he enjoyed this exercise for which he became well known.
John Lange with J. W. Boone formed the Blind Boone Concert Company whose motto was "Merit not sympathy, wins". They traveled alone in the early days, hauling the piano on the back of a horse drawn wagon. Piano's didn't last long this way, and they went through several before they became so well known that piano's were provided for them upon their arrival. By this time, they hired men to precede them to a town and advertise the upcoming concert. They also added vocalists, such as Miss Emma Smith and Mme. Marguerite Day, Stella May, Melissa Fuell and, according to a playbill dated 1908, Accompanist Miss Josephine Huggard. John Boone married Lange's sister Eugenia, who became the company's treasurer. The Company performed over 8000 concerts, often performing 6 days per week.
Mrs. J. W. Boone
An article in the Chicago Inter-Ocean, dated May 28, 1888 states; "Blind Boone, the colored vocalist and pianoforte player, assisted by Miss Stella May, gave a concert last night at the Centenary M. E. Church. The greater part of the program was instrumental, and the touch and expression of the blind man is exquisite. Considering the disadvantages he labors under, he is perfectly marvelous. His principal pieces were a Moonlight Sonata by Beethoven, and the Marshfield Tornado. Miss Stella May, a young lady scarcely 16 years of age, sings admirably, and has a perfect contralto voice."
Another article in Kunkel's Musical Review, St. Louis, Mo., dated May 1893 reads; "The Blind Boone Concert Company filled a splendid engagement for four weeks in this city. The principal member of the company, John W. Boone, is one of the most wonderful pianists of recent years. His playing is remarkable, not because of his blindness, but because of his artistic excellence. John W. Boone is justly considered the successor of the celebrated Gottschalk. He grasps with marvelous rapidity any composition played for him, and the most difficult pieces are played after single reading. His engagements here drew crowded houses nightly. He has met the leading professional men of the city, and the opinion is unanimous that he is the most wonderful artist before the public. We advise our patrons, wherever he appears; to take advantage of the opportunity of hearing him."
Blind Boone loved children and encouraged their attendance at his concerts. An excerpt from a page in a 1908 concert playbill reads; "Bring the children. They will be benefited. Blind Boone has been the means of a great many children falling in love with the piano, they having heard him play at concerts. His music charms them, and gives them brilliant ideas that they could not otherwise receive. We have the testimonials of a number of parents who give him the credit of their children being artists." It was said that Boone would stand outside the concert hall or church and talk to the children, often leading a group of them in to watch the performance for free.
Note: Our CD of Boone's music recorded from piano rolls is available from this site at only $10. (Please visit our online
store or write to me at 131 SW 300th Rd., Warrensburg, MO 64093). All profits go toward park expansion and upkeep. ~ Sandy Irle
We are all very fortunate as many articles and books have been written about Mr. Boone. Please refer to Mike Shaw's page for some wonderful pieces on Mr. Boone!