By Kathy Strickland, September 26, 2022
In this photo from the State Historial Society of Missouri Louise B. Trigg Photograph Collection, Warrensburg music icon John W. "Blind" Boone is shown with his wife, Eugenia Lange, whom he married in 1889.
WARRENSBURG, MO – The University of Central Missouri is collaborating with two other Missouri universities and the Missouri Humanities Council to bring the history of one of Warrensburg’s iconic figures to life Saturday, Oct. 1. The three-day John W. “Blind” Boone Symposium Sept. 30–Oct. 2 has as its hub the UCM campus and neighboring downtown Warrensburg.
The public is invited to attend any or all events on the tour, which begins in Columbia on Friday morning and travels by van to Warrensburg to spend the night, the next day and Saturday night. A Friday evening concert at the University of Missouri’s Whitmore Hall will be livestreamed, as will a repeat concert and four new events in UCM’s Hart Recital Hall on Saturday. The symposium’s final day of events takes place at Lincoln University in Jefferson City before returning to Columbia on Sunday afternoon.
John William Boone’s mother, Rachel, was born into slavery in Kentucky. She was working in Miami, Missouri, as a cook in a Union Army camp when she met Boone’s father, the company bugler. Boone was born in 1864 toward the end of the Civil War, and Rachel moved with her infant son to Warrensburg. He became blind around the age of 6 months as the result of treatment for cerebral meningitis.
From an early age Boone’s musical aptitude was undeniable. He started a band as a young child, playing the tin whistle, mouth harp and harmonica at gatherings around town. With the help of Johnson County officials and former Missouri Senator Francis Cockrell, the community pooled money to send the 9-year-old Boone to the Missouri School for the Blind in St. Louis, where he could develop his talents.
“I think the Warrensburg community is still proud of that effort because, at the time, to have prominent white families support a young Black man was not typical,” said UCM Musicology Professor Allison Robbins, noting that Boone moved away just one year after the University of Central Missouri was founded in 1871.
Robbins teaches a course titled “Music of the Common Practice Era,” exploring music history from the 17th century through the early 20th century. This semester her students researched digital newspaper archives for stories about Blind Boone, a local music icon.
“A lot of times music history has been taught about European composers, and we don’t really get into the music that happens near and dear to home, which actually overlaps with all of that other music history,” Robbins said. “It’s really important that our students know who Boone is. Even if they’re not from central Missouri, they’re coming to a place where he was a really prominent and influential musician.”
Everett Wimberly is a sophomore majoring in Music Technology with an emphasis in percussion. He had not heard of Boone before taking Robbins’ course but grew up playing jazz and ragtime pieces on the piano. He said researching Boone gave him a better perspective on local and regional music history.
“I think it was great for people who did get discriminated against, like Boone, to have a musical voice in this time period,” Wimberly said. “Boone’s motto, ‘Merit, not sympathy, wins’ is a great rallying cry in all of this. … I hope that I can use this project to make sure everyone is valued and included in the work that I do in music.”
Boone’s piano compositions blend his classical training with melodies from plantation songs and spirituals. He was a pioneer of the ragtime genre emerging in the 1890s from musicians such as Scott Joplin, who was living in Sedalia at the time. One of Boone’s best-known songs, “Southern Rag Medley No. 2,” is subtitled “Strains from Flat Branch” after the historical area of downtown Columbia where he moved in 1880 when founding the Blind Boone Touring Company with John Lange Jr., a former slave who moved to the city after the Civil War and became his lifelong business partner and friend.
The Blind Boone Home on North Fourth Street is one of the symposium’s first stops in Columbia on Sept. 30. The day ends with a 7 p.m. concert of Boone’s music in MU’s Whitmore Hall featuring pianist Reginald Robinson and vocalist Jolie Rocke, an adjunct professor at San Jacinto College in Houston, Texas. The concert will be repeated in UCM’s Hart Recital Hall at 7 p.m. Oct. 1. Both concerts will be livestreamed on the respective MU School of Music and UCM Music YouTube channels. Livestreaming capability in Hart Recital Hall was made possible by a donor-funded UCM Alumni Foundation Opportunity Grant.
Other events in Warrensburg on Oct. 1 include panel discussions in the morning and a 2 p.m. guided tour with UCM History Professor Jon Taylor, who has developed with his students a Historic Missouri website and app funded by a grant from the Missouri Humanities Council. Tour stops include Blind Boone Park, downtown venues where he performed and the Johnson County Historical Society, which houses a collection of related news clippings and artifacts. A 4:30 p.m. reception in Hart Recital Hall with food and live music will celebrate the newly endowed John William “Blind” Boone Annual Scholarship in Music. Available through the UCM Alumni Foundation, the scholarship provides financial support for a UCM Music student, thanks to the generosity of an anonymous donor.
Conner Craig, a pianist majoring in Instrumental Music Education at UCM, will play ragtime music at the reception. Unlike many students, he knew about Boone prior to being asked to participate in the symposium, as ragtime is his favorite musical style.
“It’s a kind of music that makes your foot tap without realizing it, a kind of music that has the power to make you laugh completely unwarranted,” Craig said. “It’s the kind of music that makes you feel child-like.”
Register for any or all events by clicking here.