Boone papers a ‘significant’ ragtime find
Documents relate to local blind pianist.
By MATTHEW LeBLANC of the Tribune’s staff
Published Sunday, November 6, 2005
Shortly after the Civil War, Columbia businessman John Lange Jr. sought to find a way to bring a note of happiness to his community.
The result was a Christmas concert in which a talented youngster named J.W. "Blind" Boone sparred musically with Thomas "Blind Tom" Greene Wiggins, a former slave who was said by many at the time to mimic songs after hearing them only once.
Boone and Greene Wiggins took turns replaying selections performed by musicians on the stage during the concert. It was that day that Boone, of Columbia, began to overtake the older Greene Wiggins as the musical wunderkind of his day, historians say.
"He kind of faded from the scene, and Boone took over his salience," said Lucille Salerno, who has worked to restore Boone’s former home at 10 N. Fourth St. as a museum.
The museum project will receive a boost tomorrow when the Columbia City Council takes its first look at a plan to buy several documents related to Boone and Greene Wiggins from a private collector in Michigan. The lot, considered the largest collection on Boone in the world, includes rare correspondence to Boone from his manager, Wayne Allen, as well as sheet music and a 1912 recording contract signed by the ragtime musician with an "X" - his mark.
Money to pay for the documents - $5,000 - will come from the Columbia Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Lorah Steiner, director of the CVB, said that because the documents are so rare, they could have fetched much more in an open auction.
"If you do find something" of Boone’s, "it’s incredibly expensive because of its rarity," she said. "This is an unparalleled opportunity to get these."
Boone was born in 1864 near Miami, Mo., the son of a Union Army bugler and a runaway slave named Rachel. Boone lost his sight when he was about 6 months old as a result of an illness deemed "brain fever" by doctors.
Boone’s family sent him to the Missouri School for the Blind in St. Louis, and he gave his first piano concert in Columbia at age 15. Guided by Lange, Boone later became a pioneer in ragtime music.
The documents to be purchased came from Michael Montgomery, a historian and collector of artifacts such as piano rolls and sheet music. Parts of his collections have been featured in documentaries by noted historian Ken Burns.
Salerno said Montgomery contacted her earlier this year about the collection.
"He told me about it first because he knew we were working on the house and we are going to transform it into a heritage museum," she said. "There is so little that is available on Boone. We’re just so lucky that Mike was not money-hungry."
In June, Montgomery attended the annual John William "Blind" Boone Ragtime & Early Jazz Festival in Columbia, bringing the documents with him.
The papers are now gathered in acid-free folders and boxes at the Western Historical Manuscript Collection at the University of Missouri-Columbia.
David Moore, associate director at WHMC, called the collection "significant."
"Being of local interest, it ranks up there pretty high," he said.
"It’s not quite the Mona Lisa, but for our history, it’s kind of like that," Salerno said.