John William Blind Boone: Celebrated Then and Now

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COLUMBIA - From New Orleans to St. Louis, ragtime music has a rich history in many areas across the country.

When it comes to ragtime music's popularity in Columbia though, much can be credited to John William "Blind" Boone.

He is a nationally known composer and musician but before he reached success, he dealt with plenty of adversity including poverty, disability and racism.

Boone was born in Saline County, Missouri, in 1864, to a self-liberated slave mother and a white father who was a bugle player. Boone became blind before the age of one after developing inflammation of the brain.

Boone began attending the Missouri School of the Blind in St. Louis in 1872, at nine years-old.  There he learned the music skills that helped him gain a sense of independence.

Lucile Salerno, a member of the John William "Blind" Boone Heritage Foundation, said she was inspired by Boone's story.

"He had a sad beginning but an incredible talent," Salerno said. "His blindness helped him, because he became so oriented to sound that he became a brilliant musician and composer."

A turning point in Boone's life came when he met John Lange Jr., a contractor in Columbia. Lange brought Boone to Columbia to play in a Christmas concert, and found ragtime music was extremely popular.

At that point, Lange wanted to become Boone's manager and gave up his construction business in order to do so.

Salerno said, "He really spread this incredible music; the first ‘made in America' music."

Ragtime is the compilation of syncopation or "ragged" rhythms.

"It's not that he was the only ragtime player, of course, but it's his work that is the landmark for the first development of American music," Salerno said.

Although he died in 1927, Boone's legacy is celebrated today not only in Columbia, but all parts of the world.

"He is honored by musicologists, historians and scholars for the fact that it's his compositions that gave evidence to the genius of ragtime," Salerno said.

His story inspires many people including Mary Barile, a historian who became fascinated with Boone's rich history in Columbia and spent many years researching his life.

"He was a great musician. I mean he was a genius in music. His connection here was very strong," Barile said."Here is this amazing musician with a disability for him and the ability to connect with people. Looking at what he overcame, and how he did it with grace and dignity and pure talent is a lesson for us all."

Boone is honored throughout the city. Columbia bought his home on 4th Street in 2000 and is currently under restoration. The house opens later this year as an exhibit open to the public.

In addition, the John William "Blind" Boone Heritage Foundation was founded to preserve his legacy.

Boone's piano was donated to Douglass High School and now rests at the Walters-Boone County Museum. Although it sits behind velvet ropes for most of the time, about six times a year the piano is played at the "Blind" Boone Piano Concert Series. Money raised goes to the piano's endowment fund which was created to repair the piano if needed. 

"Blind" Boone's legacy still plays in Columbia.