Benjamin Robertson Harney was the first person to publish a notated ragtime musical composition. According to his marriage license, Harney was born "onboard a steamer," which might account for the fact that his birthplace is variously mentioned as Louisville, Nashville, and Middlesboro. In any case, Harney is known to have grown up in Louisville. In 1887, he was enrolled in a military school and working at the post office in Middlesboro when he overheard a rugged Cumberland Mountain man playing syncopated music on a long-necked fiddle. This inspired him to develop his own songs at the piano "in broken rhythm," and within a month or two he had worked up several "raggy-time" inventions. Harney hastened back to Louisville where he introduced his lively tunes at parties, dances, and public functions with great success. Although he later said that he never heard any Afro-American musicians during these early years, Harney did set words to his melodies in what he described as a "darky dialect" in order to add what he considered to be a style suited to the music. In the saloons of Louisville, he simultaneously played piano, sang in a husky voice, and tap-danced with both feet while sitting down and rapping out rhythms with a cane. This object acted as a sort of third leg, and the effect was apparently unforgettable. In 1895 Harney managed to get a song published. Later immortalized by Bessie Smith and destined to thrive in traditional jazz band repertoires for generations to come, it had a title that was easy to remember: "You've Been a Good Old Wagon, But You Done Broke Down." Harney hit the road and toured all over the country, landing in New York in April of 1896. Riding the crest of a wave of sensational success, he came up with another hit called "Mr. Johnson, Turn Me Loose." This seems to have been another milestone: the very first published inkling of a song in the idiom of the blues. For several years, Harney had listened carefully to the music being sung by rural folks in Kentucky, and now he was synthesizing his impressions into a notated, marketable form of stylized entertainment. He opened at Tony Pastor's Theater and was instantly set into perpetual motion on several vaudeville circuits all over the eastern United States, billed as "The Inventor of Ragtime." For a little while, Harney made more money than just about anybody else in the hectic business of vaudeville. In 1897 he published a ragtime instruction manual, along with the songs "I Love My Honey," and "There's a Knocker Layin' Around." He also married a Canadian-born singer named Edyth Murray. Her stage names were Jessie Haynes, Jessie Boyce, and finally, Jessie Harney. They worked in blackface as a vaudeville duo, and teamed up as a trio with an Afro-American ragtimer from Memphis by the name of Strap Hill. Jessie's big number in this act was "I Love One Sweet Black Man." In 1898 Harney published "If You Got Any Sense You'll Go," "You May Go but This Will Bring You Back," and something with the thought-provoking title "Draw That Color Line." Harney's hits of 1899 were "The Hat He Never Ate," "Tell It To Me," "The Black Man's Kissing Bug," and most famously "The Cake-Walk in the Sky." He also organized and directed an all-black variety show called Ragtime Reception, and seems to have gone out of his way to employ Afro-American talent, often ignoring conventional notions of acceptability by appearing with an all-black orchestra. Like many innovators of his generation, Ben Harney did not adapt well with changing times and handled his money carelessly. His last noteworthy composition, "Cannon Ball Catcher," appeared in 1914, but didn't even make it to publication. For years Harney and his wife continued to eke out a living in vaudeville. They were still performing in blackface around Indianapolis during the late 1920s. Benjamin Harney endured years of poverty and died of a heart attack in a cheap room in Philadelphia on March 2, 1938. Jessie outlived her husband and was able to supply information years later when musicologists came around asking questions about the legendary Ben Harney.
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