I have done considerable research on the Harney family and have the following "bio" on Benjamin Robertson Harney.His birth record is in his father's military file, and says he was born 6 March 1872, in Memphis, TN
BENJAMIN ROBERTSON HARNEY (1872-1938)
"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".Newspaper articles say that Ben Harney was a native of Louisville, Kentucky, the son of Benjamin Mills Harney and Margaret Wellington Draffin.However, according to his father's military records, Ben R. born 6 March 1872, in Memphis, TN.His parents marriage record includes a witness Geo. A. Robertson, who is likely the person for whom he was named.
"Little is known of the early life of this great vaudevillian.He is remembered today as a pioneer writer of piano rags, but we have no knowledge of when he learned to play the piano.The first mention of him comes as a piano accompanist to a touring negro vaudeville performer.Later, he seems to have been a saloon piano player in Kansas City and St. Louis, and other midwestern cities." - from the Internet, 1999 (info.net/.CAL/th4.htm).
About 1887, according to Harney, he procured a job in the post office in Middlesboro, a mountain mining town, in Bell county, 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" (Mr. Johnson was a negro euphemism for a policeman), "You Been a Good Ol' Wagon But You Done Broke Down", and "Cakewalk in the Sky".In 1896, Ben R. Harney played his piano rags at the Tony Pastor Music Hall in New York City.His act consisted of plying and singing his own tunes.He had a negro helper in the audience by the name of Strap Hill.Strap would sit in the audience and sing a ‘shout.'Ben would repeat it on stage, and Hill would then go up onto the stage, and the pair would continue their performance together.
"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."He was described as having 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."For a while he was among the highest paid headliners in vaudeville. 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 Philadelphia, at the age of 66, March 2, 1838, from a heart attack.A small obituary was published in the New York Times. His last appearance in vaudeville was in 1923, in California.- Taken from a newspaper article published about 1928, Indianapolis (name of paper unknown), and Time Magazine article 14 March 1938. Reprinted from HU20. Also see Popular American Composers - From Revolutionary Times to the Present, by David Ewen, pub.1962.
Note: He married Edyth Murray, 1 January 1897, at Streator, Illinois.He is described as having an olive complexion, red hair and blue eyes.Ben R. performed with a black band, and recently some authors are saying he was black or of mixed ancestry.The family records do not bear this out.Chart reference: MDTEG3G.SOU.Other references: Biography Index (BioIn) 4-6; Dictionary of American Biography (DcAmB S2); Notable Names in Am. Theatre (NotNAT) B; Military records of Benjamin Mills Harney.
P.S. His father's brother was named Selby (not Selley) Harney.Selby was a Col. in 34th KY Infantry during the Civil War and was later a lawyer.
Hope this helps.