By Phoebe Prioleau
John William Boone wore out sixteen pianos by age fifty-one playing songs that ranged from "Dat Only Chicken Pie" to Chopin's "Military Polonaise." Billed as "the marvelous musical prodigy," Boone composed complex pieces on the spot and could play back any tune after hearing it once.
Born in 1864 and blind from infancy, Boone was an African American musician who lived during the height of Jim Crow laws and the Ku Klux Klan. He was billed a "freak of nature" early on and was barred from performing in many concert halls because of his race. Yet he refused to give up. "No matter how a person is afflicted," he wrote, "there is something that he can do worthwhile." His ambition eventually earned him a place among the top ragtime performers of his time.
Today Boone is celebrated at an annual ragtime festival in Columbia, Missouri, supported by the Missouri Humanities Council. The John William Boone Heritage Foundation and the City of Columbia are helping to restore his house and turn it into a cultural museum.
The son of a slave and a white army bugler, Little Willie, as he was known, had music in his genes. At six months he contracted brain fever--probably meningitis or encephalitis--and his eyes were removed to reduce the swelling in his head. But at a young age, Boone began, as he said, "begging for music." He beat out rhythms at age three and imitated bird calls with a tin whistle for the citizens of Warrensburg, Missouri. He soon graduated to a mouth organ, or harmonica, and composed songs to play on Main Street with a troupe of seven other children. Calling himself "the teacup artist," Boone bragged that he was the star performer and collected the tips. "When I was about nine the boys got mad and quit because they said I kept most all we made," he recalled in 1921.
Boone's teacup days did not last long. He accompanied his mother to the homes of white families in Warrensburg and sounded out pieces on the piano while she cooked dinner. "It was impossible to keep his fingers off the keyboard," writes his manager John Lange in one playbill.
The townspeople of Warrensburg had faith in the young pianist. They saved money and sewed clothes for Little Willie to send him to the St. Louis School for the Blind. Boone remembered their farewell: "We want you to go and then come back and show Warrensburg what you can do." Boone received music lessons his first year, but a new director the next year thought it useless for a blind African American to learn to play the piano, and put him to work making brooms and chair bottoms instead. The ten-year-old rebelled and sneaked off to listen to ragtime performances in the red light district. He was ultimately expelled.
The following year, Mark Cromwell, a white gambler, enticed Boone away with the promise of money and fame. Cromwell made the boy play the harmonica in saloons and eventually gambled him away to a man who locked him in the attic for three days. By this time, Boone's parents had learned of his whereabouts. When Cromwell dressed Little Willie as a girl in an attempt to steal him back, Boone's stepfather rescued his son with the help of the police.
Boone met John Lange, an African American philanthropist, at a church music festival. Amazed at Boone's talent, Lange offered to become his manager. The two of them traveled across the country with Boone playing spirituals, plantation songs, and ragtime to segregated audiences.
"He became such a famous entertainer that he was invited to cut piano rolls," Boone scholar Lucille Salerno says. "It's because of this that people could subsequently notate his music and experience his unique rhythm that was packaged into it."
Although much of Boone's music was preserved and can be heard today, he was not able to record his best-loved composition, "Marshfield Tornado"--he played so loudly and passionately that the piano roll broke during the recording session. The piece is an interpretation of a tornado that devastated one of the towns on his tour, and moves from chimelike sounds to an imitation of thunder and the sound of dripping water. Boone's piece was so realistic that audience members left the concert hall screaming, newspapers reported.
Boone's career began to decline after Lange's death in 1916. He struggled to fill his concert schedule and made less than half the income. He died of a heart attack in 1927, and his grave remained unmarked until 1971.
During the past ten years, there has been a revival of interest in Boone, largely because of the creation of the annual Ragtime and Early Jazz Festival in his honor and the publication of two books about him. The people of Columbia, Missouri, are ensuring that Boone's old home does not meet the same fate as "Marshfield Tornado." They are restoring his house and preserving his nine-foot concert grand piano, Big U.