Notes and Editorial Reviews
14 Piano Pieces
John Davis (pn)
NEWPORT 85678 (Enhanced CD: 73:26)
, a film by Joan Grossman (8:29)
Hidden among the Baroque and Classical goodies forwarded to me from Command Headquarters in Tenafly this time was a disc entitled “Marshfield Tornado: John Davis Plays Blind Boone.” It so happens that my prior experience with Blind Boone
was limited to one band of a two-LP set of rags played by Max Morath and a few of his closest friends. And it wasn’t even a whole piece, but only an excerpt from a Boone’s
Southern Rag Medley No. 2
. So, welcome to the world of John William (“Blind”) Boone.
Boone was born on May 17, 1864, in Miami, Missouri, to a Union army cook who had been a slave to descendants of Daniel Boone. At six months he developed “brain fever,” which at the time was treated by removing the patient’s eyeballs, supposedly to relieve the pressure in the skull and release the toxins. Despite this handicap, “Little Willie” developed the cheerful attitude and buoyant personality that he maintained for the rest of his life. His prodigious musicality surfaced by the age of five, when he formed a band to accompany himself playing harmonica and tin whistle. When he turned nine, his mother’s employer provided the means to enroll him at the Missouri Institute for the Education of the Blind in St. Louis. It was there that he was introduced to the piano and received his first musical instruction. Within a year he was performing regularly at the school and at local church services.
Racial segregation was introduced at the institute the following year, separating Boone from his former friends and playmates. He began sneaking off to hear the latest musical craze, ragtime, in the less savory districts of the city. After these excursions eventually got him expelled from the school, he resorted to panhandling until he was kidnapped by a local gambler who intended to use him as a chip. He was rescued by his stepfather and returned home, only to hit the road shortly thereafter and start a new life as an itinerant musician.
The turning point for Boone came in 1879, when John Lange, Jr., a wealthy former slave, observed Boone playing the piano at a Christmas concert at a Baptist church and offered to become his agent. Instead of rushing to exploit young Boone, Lange nurtured him, arranging for piano lessons and classical music instruction. Boone made his debut the following year in a piano play-off with a highly touted celebrity, Thomas Wiggins, another touring, blind, African-American piano virtuoso. Boone apparently held his own against “Blind Tom,” thereby gaining instant credibility. He began to tour, fashioning his programs on Wiggins’s model—classical works interspersed with his own compositions, supplemented by musical stunts designed to amaze and delight his audiences. Boone had a higher purpose than the dour, perhaps autistic Wiggins. He made it his mission to try to break down racial barriers, including black-inspired music in his concerts, which he tried, not always successfully, to offer to mixed audiences.
Boone’s popularity soared, and with it his income, scrupulously managed by Lange. He toured from coast to coast and in Canada and Mexico. The Chickering Piano Company custom made a piano for his use, and in 1912 he became the first African-American to cut piano rolls. His good fortune went into decline, however, after the death of his friend and protector, Lange, in 1916, the result of an auto accident. His tours became less extensive and less profitable as other forms of entertainment began to vie for the public’s attention. Blind Boone died after a heart attack on October 2, 1927. His grave was unmarked until 1971, and he all but disappeared from the nation’s consciousness. The title of this disc, “Marshfield Tornado,” is taken from a Boone composition that was famous at the time but is now irrevocably lost.
Blind Boone’s name, if it is remembered at all, is usually associated with ragtime. Perhaps curiously, but perhaps not, there is very little of ragtime in Boone’s surviving music, which tends toward salon-type show pieces—
Spinning Song, Grande valse de Concert, Song without Words, Grand Fantasie
, and the like. His favorite composer was Franz Liszt. The salon pieces are what they are—competent, pleasant, entertaining, not exactly earth shattering. Thus, only a faint glimmer of Boone’s genius has come down to us. We know that he played ragtime, probably improvised, at his concerts. He wrote down at least two rag medleys. Only one—the
Southern Rag Medley No. 2
(from which Morath derived his cut)—is included on this disc. Would that there were more.
In addition to playing this recital, Rhode-Island native John Davis wrote the notes for the booklet. He also appears in a short video clip, in which he tells of his life-long obsession with the blues and related forms. The clip can be viewed on most computers, hence the designation “Enhanced CD” in the headnote. Davis argues persuasively that Boone—like Wiggins, whom he had previously recorded—was a vital force in the development of America’s most characteristic and indigenous art forms, exerting a profound influence on ragtime, jazz, big band, and popular music.
Davis’s playing and Newport’s recording make this disc a worthy homage. Best of all was Davis’s devotion and diligence in making it happen.
FANFARE: George Chien
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