Biography of Columbia pianist J.W. 'Blind' Boone expands knowledge

Tuesday, March 12, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 7:10 a.m. CDT, Wednesday, March 13, 2013
Mary Barile, left, and Chris Montgomery pose for a portrait in front of J.W. "Blind" Boone house. Barile and Montgomery are co-editors of the book, "Merit, Not Sympathy, Wins: The Life and Times of Blind Boone." Boone was a blind pianist in Columbia during the late 1800s and early 1900s.

*An earlier version of this story gave an incorrect birthplace for J.W. "Blind" Boone.

COLUMBIA — Drawn in by J.W. "Blind" Boone's story and his diversity as a concert pianist, two Columbia women set out to close the gap of literature on this local historic figure. 

A new book by Mary Barile and Christine Montgomery, "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.

Boone was a blind, black American pianist who was born near Miami, Mo., and was raised in Warrensburg,* according to Montgomery. He lived his adult life in Columbia during the late 19th and early 20th century. At 6 months old, he lost his eyesight to cerebral meningitis. He died after a heart attack in 1927 at the age of 63. He was buried in the Columbia Cemetery. 

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. 

"All of these things came together, and we started saying, why isn't this part of the story more accessible to people who are interested in Boone," Barile said.

The foundation of "Merit, Not Sympathy, Wins: The Life and Times of Blind Boone"  is a biography, published by Fuell, a member of Boone's entertainment company. Barile and Montgomery annotated the biography and supplemented the book with various essays and a chronology of Boone's life.  

The foreword, written by Max Morath, draws parallels and juxtaposes Boone’s life and career with that of Scott Joplin, another famous Missouri musician. Together Mike Shaw and Montgomery look at Boone’s achievements and contributions that followed after Fuell’s biography. Pianist John Davis analyzes Boone's music, and Greg Olson and Gary Kremer look at the cultural climate in Missouri during Boone’s lifetime. Marilyn Hillsman and Barile examine the link between Boone and Fuell.

Fuell's biography provides a sense of immediacy and time frame, Barile said, while the essays contextualize Boone's music and focus on Missouri during this decisive time in black history. 

Barile and Montgomery's first project was in 2006, when they spearheaded the State Historical Society of Missouri's program called Missouri History in Performance Theatre. They worked closely there until the theater ended in 2010 because of funding cuts.

"Working with Mary is always fun because we are both creative and willing to try something new and different. Together our thoughts feed off each other well, " Montgomery said.  

Both women currently work at MU's Office of Research as grant writers.

Barile and Montgomery published the book in June. During February, Barile and Montgomery held talks about the book in Columbia and in St. Louis. 

Kevin Walsh of the State Historical Society of Missouri estimated that 35 to 50 people were in attendance for Barile and Montgomery's Feb. 2 talk at MU. These talks provide individuals a chance to reconnect with Boone, Walsh said. 

Books, articles and the like keep Boone alive in the community, said Clyde Ruffin, president of the J.W. "Blind" Boone Foundation.

"The book's supplemental articles give us a perspective from today, and in connection with Fuell's biography, it gives us a view of his humanity," Ruffin said. 

All proceeds from the book go to help restore the Boone house that was purchased by the city in 2000. The exterior of the house was renovated in 2009, but the interior still needs extensive renovations. It sits empty at 10 N. Fourth St. 

The J.W. "Blind" Boone Foundation has been raising funds to complete a tribute garden where outside concerts could be held. It has raised $26,000 and needs another $10,000 to get the project under way, Ruffin said. 

Mayor Bob McDavid recently asked Columbia City Council to contribute $500,000 of surplus budget to finish renovations to the house. 

Although working on separate projects — Barile is working on a book about rug hooking and Montgomery on a project about an unpublished Confederate soldier's diary — they are open to working together in the future.

Supervising editor is John Schneller.

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