Ben Harney is generally said to have been born in Louisville, Kentucky. Although some sources put his birthplace as Nashville, Tennessee, according to his father's military records he was born in Memphis, Tennessee In the past some have claimed that Harney was African-American and early in his career he is said to have played with African American theater troops. But, W.C. Handy correctly referred to him as "white". All photographic and contemporary accounts show that Harney was light skinned with red hair. He married and lived in white society and always represented himself as white. Furthermore his well-documented family background (See the Harney Family website) conclusively proves his ethnicity. Harney was the son of Benjamin Mills Harney, a veteran of both the Mexican-American War and the Civil War, and his second wife Margaret Wellington Draffin, daughter of a prominent Kentucky lawyer. His grandfather was John Hopkins Harney, the first mathematics professor at Indiana University and author of the first algebra textbook ever published in the United States. His uncle William Wallace Harney was a renowned journalist and author. And, he counted two prominent U.S. generals as distant cousins: Lew Wallace and William Selby Harney.
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 late 1890s. The sheet music version of Cake Walk in the Sky provided the first written out example of vocal ragging (early scat) and a recording of Harney singing (see below, although recorded many years later, fits early accounts of Harney's, then, very remarkable vocal style and suggests that Harney was singing very authentic sounding blues back in the 1890s.
In 1897 Harney published his book Ben Harney's Rag Time Instructor, the first description of how to rag: how to improvise rag time music by syncopating unsyncopated popular tunes. His now rare instructor (arranged by Theodore Northrup) includes written-out examples of 'ragged' popular tunes including light classics and opera songs.
Harney toured widely on the Vaudeville circuits in the USA, as well as tours of theaters in Europe and Asia, Australasia and the South Pacific. 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 ragging tunes at the piano, vocal ragging scat singing), and dancing. Theatrical photographs from his Australasia tour (1911) show him dancing in blackface.
Harney quit touring after suffering from a heart attack in 1928.
Ben Harney died of a heart attack at the age of 66 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
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