Ben Harney (Benjamin Robertson Harney, 1872-1938) was a crucial figure in the popularization of ragtime among mainstream audiences. Born on a Mississippi Riverboat, Harney was raised in Louisville in a prominent family. One grandfather was a groundbreaking American mathematician, the other was a lawyer and state legislator; an uncle was a journalist, and his father was a civil engineer who had been an officer in the Civil War. Major General William S. Harney was among his prominent relatives. Contemporary research has put to bed a long-standing legend that Harney was all or partially African American. It emerges that he was merely adept at adapting (some might charge, appropriating) African American musical and vocal styles.
As a teenager Harney was sent to a boarding school in Middlesboro, Kentucky, in the Cumberland Mountain region near the Tennessee border. It was there that he first encountered local musicians playing syncopated folk tunes in the late 1880s. Trained in piano himself, he began writing songs in this style, with lyrics in black dialect. One of the first of these was “You’ve Been a Good Old Wagon But You’ve Done Broke Down” which was later published and became a hit. In 1893 Harney returned to Louisville where he began being even more exposed to the growing vogue for syncopated styles. He became popular as a popular himself, singing, dancing and playing in saloons. In 1895 or ’96 he moved to New York where he became immediately popular at important vaudeville venues like Tony Pastor’s Music Hall and Keith’s Union Square. His original compositions like “Mr. Johnson Turn Me Loose” and “Cakewalk in the Sky” became popular hits. In addition to his innovative ragging musical style, he was known for his powerful voice, and his “stick dancing”, tap dancing with a cane which he used as a sort third tapping leg, adding to the syncopated effect of his dance. In 1897, he published Ben Harney’s Ragtime Instructor, the first publication to spell out how to rag existing music. A few years later he had achieved such prominence he appeared on a benefit bill with Lillian Russell at the Metropolitan Opera House.
Harney often appeared in blackface and billed himself as the Originator of Ragtime and the Father of Ragtime as he toured the big time vaudeville circuits, acts that surely infuriated the more authentic purveyors like Scott Joplin. Circa 1900 he married Jessie Haynes and the pair toured the circuits internationally as a two-act.
By the mid 1910s, conditions changed however. Jazz was born, and not only was Harney facing increased competition, but his style was being superseded by newer, crazier sounds. Bookings became increasingly difficult. The couple ceased big time Orpheum touring around 1923. In 1928 Harney suffered a heart attack, which further slowed his activities. Then the Depression hit. The couple performed occasionally after this but such events were rare. They lived simply and in poverty during his last years. A second heart attack fatally felled this musical innovator in 1938.
To find out more about artists like Ben Harney and the history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous