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Ben Harney

From Academic Kids

Ben Harney is also the name of an American actor; see Ben Harney (actor).

Benjamin Robertson "Ben" Harney (6 March, 1871 - 2 March, 1938) was a United States of America songwriter, entertainer, and pioneer of ragtime music.

Image:BenHarneyPortrait.jpg
Ben Harney, from cover of 1896 sheet music

Ben Harney is generally said to have been born in Louisville, Kentucky, although some sources put his birthplaces as Nashville, Tennessee. Harney was light skinned with red hair; early in his career he played with African American theater troops, but later in his career he represented himself as white. James P. Johnson referred to him as a "Negro", while W.C. Handy referred to him as "white". Some historians still debate Harney's ethnic background.

Harney's tunes "You've Been a Good Old Wagon, But You've Done Broke Down", "Mister Johnson, Turn Me Loose", and "Cake Walk In The Sky" were big hits in the mid 1890s.

In January of 1896 Ben Harney moved to New York City, where he appeared regularly at Tony Pastor's Music Hall. That same year Harney was referred to in print as "the rag time pianist".

In 1897 Harney published his book The Ragtime Instructor, the first comprehensive description of ragtime, with instructions of how to rag (add syncopated rhythms to) tunes, including giving written examples of ragged versions of light classics and opera songs.

Harney toured widely on the Vaudeville circuts in the USA, as well as tours of theaters in Europe and Asia. Once ragtime became popular he started billing himself as The Originator of Ragtime or "The Father of Ragtime", which most (but not all) of his contemporaries thought was an overstatement for the sake of advertising. Harney's act included him playing piano, singing (including scat singing), and dancing. He sometimes performed in blackface.

Harney quit touring after suffering from a heart attack in 1928.

Ben Harney died of a heart attack in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Listen

While Ben Harney unfortunately was neglected by commercial recording studios during his lifetime, in 1925 a folklorist recorded Harney singing an example of an early ragtime song on a dictaphone phonograph cylinder, and this recording has survived.

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