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Benjamin Robertson Harney

"Father of Ragtime"

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"Ragtime's Father" and "Jazz Originator" are terms used to describe Benjamin Robertson Harney. One newspaper article published about 1928 claims "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..."   While the music has its roots from the African-Americans in the south, it was Ben R. Harney who first had it written down on paper and popularized the music across the nation. In an interview with Ben Harney, he noted that instead of being the full-fledged father of ragtime "it would be more correct to speak of him as the father by adoption".

Ben R Harney grew up in Louisville, Kentucky, the son of Benjamin Mills Harney and Margaret Wellington Draffin. About 1887, Harney said, he procured a job in the post office in Middlesboro, a mountain mining town, in Kentucky. It was there he first heard a mountaineer musician play "a long-necked fiddle tuned to a G chord like an old-fashioned banjo", in what is now known as a syncopated beat. He immediately set to work to reproduce broken rhythm on the piano, "and in a few weeks I had it perfected to such a degree that I was composing ragtime tunes".  After quitting his post office job, Ben returned to Louisville and got together with some musician friends doing dance jobs around town. His "new style" music quickly caught on. "I wrote the words in 'darky' dialect because it was most suitable for the music", tells Harney. "But I never heard a Negro sing a ragtime song or play ragtime on any instrument until I started writing such songs and putting them on the market" he proclaims. His reputation as the originator of a new style of music spread and he began playing in theaters around the country. After his first week in New York, other musicians and song writers picked it up, and soon the ragtime craze swept across the country like wildfire. Harney was besieged by musicians and music publishers for songs and wrote so many that he says he can't remember all of them. Among his hits were "Mistah Johnson Turn Me Loose", "You Been a Good Ol' Wagon But You Done Broke Down", and "Cakewalk in the Sky".

"At the height of his fame, Ben Harney was of such importance in New York that he was permitted to 'desecrate' the sacred confines of the Metropolitan opera house with his ragtime piano playing on the same program with Lillian Russell and other noted stars giving a benefit performance there."  For a time Ben R. Harney was among the highest paid head liners in vaudeville. According to a newspaper article, he had a husky voice which he could "sustain certain notes for special effect to extravagant, breathtaking lengths; others he would break in a way that he alone could manage."

Ben Harney was popular for the "stick dance" - some of the steps are shown in an Australian newspaper called "The Theatre", dated 1 Feb, 1911. 

He was known as a liberal spender, and his fortune slipped away, as ragtime gradually went into decline, and was revived in the form of jazz.  In the late 1920's he was appearing in Indianapolis, Indiana, in a blackface act with his wife, who was professionally known as Jessie Haynes. Benjamin R. Harney died in relative poverty, in a rooming house in Philadephia, at the age of 66, March 2, 1838., from a heart attack.    His aunt, Eliza Ross (Harney) Hughes, and her family, also lived in Philadelphia at the time. A small obituary was published in the New York Times.

- Taken from a newspaper article published about 1928, Indianapolis (name of paper unknown), and Time Magazine article 14 March 1938. Thanks to Brian D. Harney, KY, and Amelia (Harney) Thompson, VA, for sending these articles.


Benjamin Robertson Harney, more commonly known as Ben R., was born 6 March 1871, at Memphis, Tennessee (according to his father's military pension), the son of Benjamin Mills Harney and his second wife, Margaret Wellington Draffen. Ben, himself, indicated he was born "aboard a steamer. "The marriage certificate of Capt. Ben M. Harney to Miss Maggie Draffen, shows the marriage took place on 18 May 1864, Anderson county, KY, at the home of Mr. John Draffen, a lawyer and Maggie’s father. Mr. Draffen was also the Kentucky State Representative from Anderson County for three terms. Present were family friends Henry McLeod (lawyer), Wm. Searcy (legal clerk), Jno. Wills, Geo. A. Robertson (for whom young Ben was later named) and others. Benjamin Mills Harney is described in his military records as 5 ft. 7 inches tall, light complexion, light hair, blue eyes. His son, Ben R. Harney is known to have had red hair and blue eyes.

Ben R. Harney’s father was a partner in the firm of Harney and Randolph, civil engineers. He also began a legal practice with James R.W. Smith, in Louisville, KY, and he ran for public office in 1867, when he was defeated in the race for Superintendent of Public Instruction. Ben R. Harney’s grandfather, was John Hopkins Harney, State Senator from Jefferson County, and owner of the newspaper The Louisville Democrat. After his death, he was inducted into the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame.

The Harney-Draffen marriage took place during the Civil War, and Ben R. Harney was born during the Reconstruction era. This was a period in American history when black people did not have the opportunities that Ben R. Harney’s prominent family enjoyed. This is one more reason, this author, does not agree with the claim that he was black.

Ben R. Harney married first, Edyth Murray, 1 January 1897, at Streator, Illinois (see marriage record, below).  They divorced and Edyth went on to a separate career in theater and later, on radio.  Ben married second, to Jessie Haynes (aka Jessie Boyce). There is no record of this couple having any children.  Jessie signed Ben's death certificate in 1938.  A photo of Ben and Jessie opening their act in Sydney Australia was published in "The Theatre" on 1 Feb 1911.

Edward A. Berlin, while doing research for his articles on Ben R. Harney, was able to find a recording of Ben’s voice. He graciously sent me a copy, for which I am very grateful. The tape also includes some of Ben R’s most popular ragtime tunes played by more recent artists.

It was unusual during that time period for a white performer to have an all black band, such as Ben R. Harney did during much of his career. To add to the confusion, James P. Johnson, an early jazz pianist, in an interview late in his life, was quoted as saying Ben Harney was "a Negro". This statement is usually attributed to Eubie Blake, who repeated it in 1972. But Eubie Blake later admitted to writer Edward A. Berlin, that he never met Ben R. Harney.  

Mr. Berlin has entertained the theory that perhaps Ben R. Harney had some ‘Melungeon’ ancestors, if not in the Harney line, then perhaps on his mother’s side of the family. He explains that Melungeons have a varied racial ethnic richness, including Portuguese, Turkish, American Indian, and African American, as well as Caucasian ancestry. Other historians have been very critical of this theory, and the family history does not support it. Chart MDTEG3G.SOU.

Note: If anyone knows of any photographs of Ben R. Harney, please let me know.

BenHarney-portrait.jpg (5206 bytes) Portrait of Ben Harney from Ed Berlin's web site:

Further reading: Berlin, Edward A., Reflections on the Ben Harney Mystery in The Mississippi Rag, Sept. 1997, p.17.; Tallmadge, William, Ben Harney: The Middlesborough Years, 1890-93, in American Music, Summer 1995; Matheny, Ann Brown, Father of Ragtime in Back Home in Kentucky, Sep/Oct 1997, pp.26-28.


Marriage License and Marriage Register

Ben R. Harney and Miss Edyth Murray, 1 Jan 1897
Streator, Illinois

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Groom: Ben R. Harney Age: 25-26 Father: Ben Mills Harney   Bride: Miss Edyth Murray Age: 22-23 Father: William Murray Married: Streator
Res: Louisville, KY Race: white Mother: Margaret W. Draffen   Res: Chicago, Ill Race: white Mother: Sarah Carville Date: Jany 1, 1897
Occ: Actor Born: on board Steamer*       Born: Montreal, Canada   Witness: Mollie Thompson & Dr. Leach. by J.C. Smith, Police Magistrate

Note: Age = current age, and age next birthday.           * Military record of Benjamin Mills Harney says his son, Ben R. was born at Memphis, TN, 6 Mar 1872

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Marriage records from the Family History Library, film # 1,170,813.  Book 4-107, Cert. # 1389

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