Merit, Not Sympathy, Wins: The Life and Times of Blind Boone

Mary Collins Barile & Christine Montgomery, eds.


In post-Reconstruction America, John William “Blind” Boone, an illiterate, itinerate musician, overcame obstacles created by disability, exploitative managers, and racial prejudice to become one of the country’s most beloved concert performers.

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In post-Reconstruction America, John William “Blind” Boone, an illiterate, itinerant musician, overcame obstacles created by disability, exploitative managers, and racial prejudice to become one of the country’s most beloved concert performers. Melissa Fuell-Cuther’s out-of-print biography, Blind Boone: His Life and Achievements, relates the highlights of Boone’s harrowing journey and also testifies to the struggles of many African Americans during the Jim Crow era.

With the initial publication of the Boone biography in 1915, Fuell-Cuther broke ground as the first American black author to write about the life of a black musician. As a member of Boone’s concert company, she provided firsthand knowledge of Boone’s early years, his career performing tours across the country, and perhaps most importantly, his professional and personal relationship with John Lange, whom many at the time considered the best entertainment manager, black or white, in the country.

The story of Blind Boone is revitalized in this annotated edition of the biography, accompanied by essays describing the Missouri environment in which the artist lived, his place within the landscape of American music, and his achievements after publication of the second edition. Early black performers faced barriers of discrimination with perseverance, resilience, and courage to carve a path for future generations.

One of Missouri’s premier ragtime musicians John William “Blind” Boone led a remarkable life, but his legendary skills as a pianist and entertainer have faded from public memory. Thanks to the insightful offerings of a stellar cast of contributors, this much-needed volume documents Boone’s extraordinary experiences as a celebrated African American musician, reveals the racial injustices of his time and place, and rescues him from undeserved obscurity.

—William E. Foley, Professor Emeritus,
University of Central Missouri


Foreword—Max Morath

Preface: A Life Retold

Strains from Flat Branch: The Music of Blind Boone—John Davis

A Place and a Time: The Missouri of Blind Boone and John Lange Jr.—Greg Olson and Gary Kremer

Melissa Fuell-Cuther and Blind Boone—Mary Barile and Marilyn Hillsman

Blind Boone: His Early Life and His Achievements—Melissa Fuell-Cuther

Table of Contents
List of Illustrations
Chapter I. Introductory Chapter
Chapter II. Birth and Early Childhood Days
Chapter III. School Days
Chapter IV. Out in the World
Chapter V. John Lange
Chapter VI. On the Road
Chapter VII. Prof. John William Boone
Chapter VIII. What Others Think of Boone’s Worth
Chapter IX. Concert Reminiscences
Chapter X. Some of Boone’s Songs (Original)
Chapter XI. Instrumental Selections
Chapter XII. Supplement – Boone’s Faithful Manager Dies
Chapter XIII. Peeping Back Then Forward
Chapter XIV. Conclusion – O. M. Shackelford

The Story Continues…Mike Shaw and Christine Montgomery

Selected Chronology: The Life and Times of John William “Blind” Boone and John Lange



Mary Collins Barile, PhD, is a theatre historian and author of books about Missouri history, the Santa Fe Trail, and the history of acting in nineteenth-century America. Her most recent publication is The Haunted Boonslick: Ghosts, Ghouls & Monsters of Missouri’s Heartland. She lives in Boonville, Missouri.

Christine Montgomery is a grant writer for the University of Missouri. Prior to coming to the university, she worked as the photograph specialist at the State Historical Society of Missouri, where she wrote the Blind Boone essay for the society’s Historic Missourians website. She served as a contributing writer and coeditor for Images of Our Lives, a history of Columbia, Missouri, in the twentieth century, published by the Columbia Tribune Press.


John Davis, pianist and musicologist, is a specialist in American roots music at the intersection between white and black cultures. His recordings include Newport Classic CDs Marshfield Tornado: John Davis Plays Blind Boone, John Davis Plays Blind Tom, and Halley’s Comet: Around the Piano with Mark Twain & John Davis. He graduated from the Juilliard School and Brown University and has assembled a major collection of rare nineteenth-century African American sheet music, books, and ephemera.

Marilyn Hillsman is a community activist. She earned a BA from the University of Central Missouri in corporate communications and teaches marginalized and underprivileged people how to step out of the margin and into respect. Blind Boone and Melissa Fuell Cuther are some of her favorite role models for people who rose above the challenges facing them.

Gary Kremer, PhD, is the executive director of the State Historical Society of Missouri. Previously he taught history at Lincoln University in Jefferson City and William Woods University in Fulton, and served as Missouri’s state archivist. He has written, cowritten, and coedited ten books and dozens of journal articles, and is an authority on the African American experience in Missouri.

Greg Olson is the Curator of Exhibits and Special Projects at the Missouri State Archives in Jefferson City is and author of The Ioway of Missouri and a forthcoming book on Missouri folklorist Mary Alicia Owen. He served as the founding president of the John William Boone Heritage Foundation and is the former chair of Columbia [Missouri] Historic Preservation Commission.

James M. (Mike) Shaw, retired Kansas City ironworker, now owns and operates CMO Solar. He serves on the Board of Directors of the Johnson County (MO) Historical Society, Blind Boone Park Renovation Group, and the J. W. “Blind” Boone Heritage Foundation, among others. He has spent many years researching the life of Boone and his contemporaries and has been a guest scholar at the Blind Boone Ragtime and Early Jazz Festival, among other events.


Merit, Not Sympathy, Wins: The Life and Times of Blind Boone, sheds light on the piano prodigy's influence beyond the ragtime genre and looks at the breadth of his performances of ragtime, classical and spiritual music that shaped the music of his time.... The authors were fascinated by the rarity of Melissa Fuell's 1915 biography of Boone and aware of the absence of literature about Boone and the misconception that his contributions were limited to the ragtime genre. Barile and Montgomery set out to revitalize the pianist's story and tell it in a more complete way than it had been told before.

Missourian, March 12, 2013

... a significant boon to the fields of African American music and disability studies. Mary Collins Barile and Christine Montgomery’s editing and choice of supplementary material straightforwardly bring the Boone story and legacy up to date while Fuell-Cuther’s original test takes us back to a world that we cannot afford to forget.

- Missouri Historical Review, April 2014

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