Ben Harney, the Father of Ragtime

Published 4:27 pm Friday, March 8, 2024

By Ann Matheny

For the Middlesboro News


We are all familiar with the unique history of Bell County beginning with the cosmic and geological events which formed the gaps in Cumberland Mountain and Pine Mountain—our famous Wilderness Road—and the meteorite that gouged out the bowl in which Middlesboro was built.  Less familiar are some of the other fascinating stories about our county.  One of these is the prominent place Bell County holds in the history of popular music.

Prior to 1895, popular music was limited to ballads and waltzes.  Music historians have traced the antecedents of jazz, which became popular after World War I, to ragtime. But what were the origins of ragtime, a completely new music genre which suddenly burst on the scene in the mid-1890s?   Although many influences have been hypothesized, music historians agree that the “Father of Ragtime” was Benjamin Robertson Harney.  He was the first person to write and publish a ragtime song and the first to popularize the genre. Harney performed all over the country as well as in Europe, Australia, China and the South Pacific.  He wrote and published over 100 ragtime songs and at his height was one of highest paid musicians in the country.

One of the best accounts of the origin of ragtime comes from an interview with Harney recorded by Henry K. Burton in an Indiana newspaper about 1928.

According to Mr. Burton,  “If any one man can be held responsible for this much-mooted ‘jazz age’ the distinction goes to an humble vaudeville pianist and comedian, Ben R. Harney, the originator of ragtime music from which jazz and modern syncopation was derived.”

By this time, Harney was essentially retired and could look back on his 35 years in show business judiciously.  He admitted to Mr. Burton, as related in the article, that “instead of being the full-fledged father of ragtime it would be more correct to speak of him as the father by adoption.”

Harney explained that he had gone to Middlesboro in the late 1880s with his father, who was, among other things, a land surveyor and engineer.  This was in the earliest days of the city’s establishment, when it was very much a “wild west” type town with “boomers” flooding in from all over the country and from Europe.  Harney, who was still a teenager at the time, described it as “a community of some 8,000 souls, mostly men, of the hard drinking, hard fighting, feud loving variety.”

According to Ben, his cousin Hardy Robinson was the town’s assistant postmaster at the time and he vouched for Ben so that he was soon in good standing with all the inhabitants and was invited to attend their dances. It was at one of these dances that he first heard the broken rhythm music which he later named ragtime.

He recalled, “Among the mountaineer musicians was a lanky chap called ‘Chaw’ George who played a long-necked fiddle tuned to a G chord like an old-fashioned banjo, and occasionally one of his fellows would embellish the tunes ‘Chaw’ played by rat-tatting the strings across the neck of the instrument with a piece of wire or sticks, thus breaking the musical rhythm in perfect syncopation.  The effect was not only startling but decidedly pleasing to the ear and the senses.”

Harney went on to explain that from early childhood he had played piano by ear. He said that he was so taken by the broken rhythm tunes played on the long-neck fiddle by ‘Chaw’ and his assistant that he immediately set to work to reproduce broken rhythm on the piano, and within a few weeks he had perfected it to such a degree that he was composing ragtime tunes.  Soon he was playing in the bars and taverns around town — there were 40 of them during those early days — making up pieces and incorporating other elements of music as he performed.

Harney further explained, “I could also sing a little, so I tried setting words to some of my ragtime piano compositions.”

He said he wrote the words using the dialect of southern black people, “because it was most suitable for the music,” adding that ragtime had been erroneously ascribed to those people. “I never heard (one of them) sing a ragtime song or play ragtime on any instrument until I started writing such songs and putting them on the market.”

Ben became Middlesboro’s assistant postmaster in the spring of 1891 when his cousin gave up the job to pursue other opportunities. The job does not seem to have interfered with his social life.

In July of 1890 Harney had joined the Alford Light Infantry, a unit of the Kentucky State Guard.  This appears to have been as much a social club for young men in town as it was a military unit. The group often held dances and “entertainments.”  However, on July 16, 1891, the unit was called out to assist county and city officials deal with a violent situation at Gum Springs, a saloon just outside the city limits, which the local newspaper referred to as “that foul resort of the scrum of creation.”

A man was arrested on charges of being involved in the melee — he was supposedly about to shoot some police officers from ambush when captured—and lodged in the city jail.  The next morning, he was found hanging from the 20th Street Bridge, a victim of “Judge Lynch.”  At first, it appeared that the matter would not be pursued, but in late August of 1891, a grand jury indicted a number of people for the crime, including some members of the Alford Light Infantry.  Ben Harney was one of those.

The trial of the first defendant ended in an innocent verdict, and the second in a mistrial.  The trials of the other defendants were continued from one court session to another until finally, in July of 1893, all the rest of the cases were dismissed.  On July 18, 1893, Ben Harney was mustered out of the Guard and immediately left town, never to return.  This particular episode in his life was never mentioned in any interviews or, until recently, in any accounts of his life.

What was he doing while waiting for his case to be heard? Apparently not only working in the post office, but also still performing.

According to an article published in the Louisville Times in 1916, “Harney was first heard of as a local celebrity in his own mountain home because of his ability to extempore songs, the airs of which were catchy and easy to whistle and remember…[people] would cluster around Harney in some popular place and listen to his rather musical selections…and Harney would own the place until he got tired.”

The World’s Fair was held in Chicago the summer of 1893. It attracted many itinerant musicians and there has been a suggestion Harney may have gone there before returning to Louisville.  If so, he never mentioned it.  He simply said in the Burton interview that once back in Louisville, he got in with a few young fellows, musicians playing dance jobs around town, and quickly created a brisk demand for his services owing to the new style music he played on the piano.

He first played in the bars and saloons in Louisville’s riverfront area.  There he was heard by a young businessman, Bruner Greenup, who was so impressed with his performance that he agreed to publish one of Harney’s songs, “You’ve Been a Good Old Wagon, but You Done Broke Down.”  Since Harney did not know how to write music, it was necessary to enlist the help of John Biller, the music director of a downtown Louisville theater, to actually commit it to paper.  Therefore, the publication date was not until January of 1895.

Meanwhile, Harney had taken a job with a traveling vaudeville group, introducing his new music to various audiences all over the upper south and midwest.  One of the places he played in December of 1895 was Sedalia, Missouri, where he was lauded for his “singing and playing ‘ragtime’ music on the piano, a novelty.”  He returned to Sedalia in 1896 and was described by the newspaper as “the illustrator of ‘ragtime’ music on the piano, introducing the real melodies and buck dancing as practiced in the southern states.”  That most famous of ragtime composers, Scott Joplin, had arrived in Sedalia in 1894.  He was often on the road as a traveling musician, mostly playing the cornet in bands, but one has to wonder if he heard of Harney’s “novel” music while in Sedalia. If so, he was late adopting it since his first ragtime piece was not published until 1899.

Harney’s real break came in 1896 when Tony Pastor hired him for his Pastor’s Theatre in New York City. The Louisville Herald reported, “Harney went over big with the theater and the next day New Yorkers began whistling, ‘Mr. Johnson, Turn Me Loose.’ Before the week was over, everyone in the big town who was not actually nailed to their bed by sickness was either humming or whistling the catchy strains of Harney’s ragtime.”

For the next year, he was featured at Pastor’s about every six weeks and between those performances was engaged by other theaters in New York, Boston, Philadelphia and throughout the northeast. What a heady experience for the young musician—Harney was only 25 at the time.

However, Harney did not enjoy a monopoly on ragtime for long; soon other performers and songwriters copied his music and the ragtime craze swept across the country like wildfire.  But Harney did ride the crest of the wave, being booked into the best venues, including three overseas tours, plus publishing over a hundred ragtime songs and a book, The Ragtime Instructor, meant to teach others how to play in his style.

But music was again changing—ragtime was morphing into early jazz.  By 1920 the country was well into the “Jazz Age” and Harney was reduced to playing in smaller venues, but still with posters identifying him as the “Originator of Ragtime.”  In 1923 he suffered a heart attack and was seldom able to perform after that.  He died in 1938.

His passing was noted by many mainline newspapers, journals and magazines which called him “the father of ragtime and the grandfather of jazz.”

Bell County plans to honor Ben Harney’s contribution to popular music with our first Magic City Ragtime and Jazz Festival, to be held June 21-23 in downtown Middlesboro.  Circle the date and watch for details.

The Magic City Ragtime and Jazz Festival committee hopes you will support efforts to recognize the unique place Bell County holds in the history of popular music.  The Levitt group will begin its summer music series on Thursday, June 20.  The Festival will kick-off on Friday, June 21, with a dinner which will include entertainment and music.  Saturday will be an all-day event with ragtime and jazz groups playing at various locations around town, storytelling, children’s activities, and vendors featuring period crafts, food and drink and an appreciation of our heritage.  Sunday morning the Festival will close with a short outdoor gathering featuring old-time gossip music. Please plan to attend.