Thursday, December 15, 2016

"Blind" Boone and the Polyphonic West African Roots of Ragtime

Ragtime Revival and Musical Legacies in St. Louis
By Patricia Rice for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch - 1974 

RAGTIME is keeping feet tapping again. Disk jockeys are spinning rag-time records and ragtime albums are in demand at record shops. The movie, "The Sting," used Scott Joplin's ragtime music on its soundtrack. One of the best-selling albums last year was the New England Conservatory Ragtime Ensemble's renditions. On the levee, the St. Louis Ragtimers are playing to more attentive, knowledgeable audiences.

Alton Evening Telegraph, Jan 13, 1883.
The audiences are asking more questions, and one of the questions is where did ragtime come from. Lots of ragtime was played in St. Louis—in the "tenderloin" along Morgan Street (Delmar) and Franklin Avenue. The black piano player was paid good money to play the exciting music in the garish bordellos. Ragtime's musical origins are harder to pin down. One of the links with where the music began is the ragtime music of Blind Boone.

Boone wasn't a stereotype piano player wearing sleeve garters and pounding away on a bordello upright.

Boone was a debonair black pianist who played in the finest halls here and in Europe. He was considered an outstanding musician by his peers and won acclaim from Paderewski and Rachmaninoff. His repertoire was vast and he had the near-genius gift of being able to imitate anything he heard after one or two hearings.

When Mrs. Irene Cortinovis, assistant director of archives and manuscripts at the University of Missouri at St. Louis, interviewed 20 old Mississippi Riverboat musicians, she found that Boone was one of their heroes.

BOONE, a black man who had made it in the white European tradition of classical music, loved ragtime. He used to get lost from time to time and go to bordello districts where he played ragtime.

He may have been one of the first musicians to play ragtime before an audience of white men and women in a serious music concert hall. When his audience would become restless after a number of concertos he would stop and say: "We going to put the cookies on the lower shelf now," and he would burst out in a rag.

The Hutchinson News, May 15, 1926.
The rag the audience heard was not like the rag you buy in the record shop today — even if what you are buying is a recording of 1900 piano rolls. B pone reproduced every note he heard. ARA what he played was rags the way they were first played before Scott Joplin, Tom Turpin, Louis Chavin and James Scott and other Missouri pianist-com-posers wrote down what are now called classic rags.

TREBOR TICHENOR, pianist for the St. Louis ragtimers, lecturer at Washington University and KFMU ragtime program disk jockey, has a dozen Blind Boone piano rolls. •

He believes that they are a key to what ragtime was in the beginning.  Tichenor sat down at his player piano recently and ran his yellowed piano rolls cut by Boone. The rags were different from any we had heard. Instead of the usual march meter in the left hand conflicting with the music in the right in usual syncopated rag style, the music was polyphonic. It was not unlike driving African drum tempos.

"You'd think the notes were all wrong," Tichenor said. "But this is more like folk music, more like what ragtime must have been at first.

"They are rare jewels of authentic [black] folk music," he said handling a roll carefully and slipping it into its discolored box.

A roll Tichenor had run for us was one of the rags that Boone had written himself. If a ragtime pianist today would play the sheet music it would sound much like conventional ragtime. It is Boone's personal playing arrangement on the piano rolls — not the written notations that he played or improvised for the piano roll cutting session — that is the link to ragtime's past.

Perhaps Boone's reputation as a concert pianist allowed him the freedom to play his selections as they were played in the honky-tonks before they became commercially acceptable to whites.

The McPherson Daily Republican, May 4, 1916.
JOHN WILLIAM BOONE was born in March 1864 in the Seventh Militia camp at Miami, Mo. His mother, Rachel, was a cook. According to re-search of Robert Darch, a ragtime historian and musician, Rachel Boone was born in Kentucky. Descendants of Daniel Boone's family owned her as a slave.

When John William Boone was about 6 months old he suffered from what doctors termed "brain fever." A doc-tor removed his eyeballs to save his life.

Boone's mother married Harrison Hendrix when Boone was S years old. The family lived in a one-room log cabin on a small farm. The boy was given a tin fife and according to residents of Warrensburg he used to play at picnics and street corners. He could perfectly imitate birds sounds. The community raised funds to send the blind child to the St. Louis School for the Blind. There he learned to play the piano. A few years earlier braille musical notations for the blind had been developed by St. Louis musician Henry Robyn who taught at the school when Boone was there.

Boone had a gift for imitation. He is said to have mastered the piano in a year to the extent that he could play any composition on hearing it once. In his second year at the school he begin slipping away at night to play the piano at houses along Morgan and Franklin.

Eventually he was expelled and he returned to Warrensburg where he played popular tunes at picnics and fairs. At one fair a man named Cromwell hired him to travel with him and play music in the streets. Eventually Cromwell gambled and lost the boy in a poker game. The winner used young Boone to earn money. Boone's stepfather rescued him, according to Darch's research. Later Boone joined two young men and played music at train stops across central Missouri.

WHEN HE WAS 13 he met John Lange of Columbia who eventually be-came his manager. The pair went to a concert of a blind Negro pianist called Blind Tom who would ask a member of the audience to play a piece and then he would repeat it exactly as he heard it. Boone volunteered and played a difficult piece that won him applause.

The story of this statue as a commemoration remains untold...
Statue of "Blind" Boone
in Blind Boone Park in Warrenburg, MO
Later he played in Iowa where he was stranded with no money. A teacher at Iowa State Teacher's College convinced him that he could learn to play the classics. By imitating the teacher and others, he expanded his repertoire.

He continued to study music and Anna Heurmann, a teacher at William Woods College at Fulton, Mo., taught him in the early '90s, according to her family letters on file with the State Historical Society.

By 1894 Boone's popularity as a classical pianist had grown to such an extent that at a Saturday night concert in Miami, Mo., hundreds of people were turned away, the Miami News reported. He toured the United States and Canada frequently, usually scheduling six concerts a week according to records of the Blind Boone company. He was proud of playing at Harvard and Yale Universities. Twice before his retirement in 1927 he toured Europe.

The Sedalia Democrat, 
Aug 19, 1960.

IN 1888 HE MARRIED his manager's sister. They purchased a stately two-story brick house in Columbia Mo., which later became an undertaking establishment.

At the time of his retirement the Kansas City Star reported that his annual income was $17,000 a year. He was noted for being generous with donations to children. He used to infuriate concert hall managers by leading a dozen or more children into his con-certs without tickets.

Boone died just four months after he retired.

In 1961, Columbia residents held a benefit concert to raise money for a tombstone for his grave and for a music scholarship in his name. The effort was headed by State Senator A. Basey Vanlandingham.

Supporters included many who had 1.-Q.rd him play, including Gov. John Dalton, whose father's coal yard was near Boone's home. Vanlandingham recently noted that the concert barely made expenses. However, a tombstone was set up and later a com-unity center was named after Boone.

The piano rolls linking ragtime to it's polyphonic African origins are only now being regarded as Boone's real memorial. 

The Pittsburgh Courier, Sep 14, 1929.
The following is a selected list of books, articles, and manuscripts about John William "Blind" Boone in the research centers of the Missouri Historical Society.

Other Articles

North Todd Gentry, Blind Boone and John Lange, Jr.” Missouri Historical Review 34:2 (January 1940), pp. 232-234. 

“Blind Boone,” Jefferson City Daily Tribune, April 27, 1898. 

“Blind Boone and His Life Story,” Columbia Tribune, July 25, 1912. p. 1, 3.

“Blind Boone Closes Forty-Fourth Season on Musical Platform,” Columbia Missourian, June 3, 1924. 

Mary Barile and Christine Montgomery, eds. Merit, Not Sympathy, Wins: The Life and Times of Blind Boone (Truman University Press, 2012.)

Jack Batterson, Blind Boone: Missouri’s Ragtime Pioneer (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1998).

Melissa Fuell, Blind Boone, His Early Life and His Achievements (Kansas City, MO: Burton Publishing Co., 1915).

Madge Harrah, Blind Boone: Piano Prodigy (Minneapolis, MN: Carolrhoda Books, 2004.)

The Kansas City Times, Feb 8, 1961.