Merit, Not Sympathy, Wins, edited by Mary Collins Barile and Christine Montgomery, is another book about ‘Blind’ John Boone. The title is derived from a motto that Boone’s manager used to differentiate him from another African-American prodigy of the piano, ‘Blind’ Tom Wiggins. While they both had special aural skills and could reproduce anything they heard at the piano, Wiggins was a savant and Boone felt that his audience was reacting more out of sympathy and pity for his condition than his actual talent. Thus, Boone wanted to emphasize his own artistic merit over his disability.
Although this book is actually a collection of materials from various authors, its centerpiece is the original biography of ‘Blind’ Boone commissioned by his manager, John Lange, and first published in 1915. The author was Melissa Fuell-Cuther, a personal friend of Boone and a member of his touring company. As such, Fuell-Cuther had an intimate knowledge of Boone and access to his recollections while writing the book. Along with that, we have the expected result that her writing reads something like a lengthy advertisement for Boone’s concerts. Indeed, one chapter is simply a collection of various newspaper reviews. Reading through all of these gets a bit tedious after a while but they convey enlightening information about what Boone played in his concerts and how they were received by the public. One review puts more realistic boundaries on Boone’s famed ability to play back, note for note, any piece played at the piano with just one hearing. In this one instance the piece played for Boone was simply too complicated for him to reproduce every note. In place of that he played through the piece as best he could, accompanied by an intelligent analysis of how the music was constructed. Rather than a savant-like talent, this shows that Boone was human, although with exceptional memory and musical perception. Overall, Fuell-Cuther does a good job, given the circumstances, and it appears that this, the first published biography of an African-American musician, has a lot less exaggeration than the tall tales made up by many musicians about their past (e.g. Brun Campbell).
A portion of the original biography is three reproduced musical scores: a “plantation” song, Geo’gia Melon, and two piano solos: the Grand Fantasie on Stephen Foster’s Old Folks at Home and Grand Valse de Concert. The waltz is probably most typical of Boone’s composing overall, which is in a pleasing salon style of the era but does not indicate any special creative genius. Old Folks at Home is transformed into a set of brilliant variations, again in a salon style far from African-American folk music.
The book also contains short contributions by luminaries such as Max Morath and John Davis. Davis repeats the unfortunate viewpoint that “Boone is rightly regarded today as one of ragtime’s pioneering figures.” But he also points out that Boone’s music extends far beyond ragtime, and his rag pieces make up a small amount of his total output. We also have to consider the fact that he published his Southern Rag Medleys in 1908, well into the classic rag era, whereas Boone had been regularly publishing his music since 1885. While it is true that Boone’s medleys are in a proto-rag style, we have no specific evidence that he was playing these pieces during ragtime’s formative years, and thus the label of “pioneer” is unsupported. Morath drives this notion home quite effectively by pointing out that there is little evidence that Boone was part of the ragtime movement. He states “…you will search through the text of [the biography] in vain to find the author, even once, using the term ‘ragtime’…” What, then, was Boone’s relationship with ragtime, if he was not a pioneer? Davis provides the answer: “In his concert programs, Boone regularly performed camp meeting tunes, plantation melodies, negro spirituals, minstrel songs, ragtime, coon songs, and his own black music-inspired piano pieces”. Boone was, then, a transmitter of black culture, an ambassador of sorts. As such, he reflected and transmitted these forms of music rather than originate them. Davis sums up Boone’s contributions in this area nicely by stating “Boone left us with a rare window into black folk music of the era before recorded music that, even today, remains largely undocumented.”
Boone’s window into black folk music of this time ought to indeed be appreciated by those interested in the formation of ragtime as well as the blues. But differentiation needs to be made between the music that Boone transmitted versus the music that he composed. John Davis gives us a clue about the difference by examining Boone’s approach to his piano rolls of Rag Medley No. 2 versus one of his classically-styled pieces. “From the opening flourish of ‘Southern Rag Medley No. 2: Strains from Flat Branch’, the listener is confronted with notes and sectional repeats not encountered in the printed score. Boone’s extensive embellishments here stand in stark opposition to his faithful piano-roll rendering of the notes and rhythms in the published version of ‘Woodland Murmurs’.” In between his classical pieces and his folk music transcriptions are the hybrids, pieces in a salon style but inspired by African-American sources, much as Gottschalk had done earlier. These include Boone’s three Caprices de Concert and his Grand Fantasie on Stephen Foster’s Old Folks at Home. (Caprice de Concert 2 particularly resembles Gottschalk’s Bamboula and The Banjo in places.) These scores are much more polished, florid, and virtuosic than his rag medleys and should be regarded fundamentally differently. My conclusion, at least, is that among Boone’s piano solos the only relatively unvarnished transmissions of black folk music are the two Southern Rag Medleys and the Camp Meeting No. 1.
While there is nothing here specifically related to piano blues, Merit, Not Sympathy, Wins does give us some insight into the musical happenings late in the 1800s when the blues was forming. It is also a valuable look at one of our most peculiar and talented African-American pianists. The book can be purchased here: Merit, Not Sympathy, Wins