Ben. Harney's Mister Johnson turn me loose : a coon novelty / written, composed and introduced by Ben. Harney. (New York : M. Witmark & Sons, c1896). Sheet Music Collection, The John Hay Library, Brown University Library.
Ben R. Harney has been credited as the musician who did the most to introduce ragtime to audiences throughout the world. Born in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1871, Harney's racial origins have long been debated. Some people, among them Eubie Blake, claimed that he was a black man passing as white. Others maintained that Harney was a white man so thoroughly inspired by the music played by African-American pianists in Louisville saloons that he assumed their style and made it his own. In support of this latter theory, the comments of Fred Stone's in a 1924 New York Times article are often quoted: Ben Harney was "a white man who had a fine negro shouting voice." Given that Harney was educated in a military academy--an environment that would have been segregated in the late 19th-century--Stone's claim may well have been correct.
Harney took formal piano lessons in his youth, but he abandoned traditional music for the songs that he heard in the saloons of Louisville. In his late teens, he wrote what is now thought to be the first true ragtime song, "You've Been a Good Old Wagon but You've Done Broke Down," which was later published with the assistance of a Louisville businessman.
Harney took his talent to New York City where he quickly became a mainstay on the vaudeville stage in the late 1890s, playing ragtime, as Stone later would note, in New York's "first-class theatres." Harney's hit rags include "Mr. Johnson Turn Me Loose" and "The Cakewalk in the Sky." His Ragtime Instructor (1897) was the first of many method books aimed at an audience of amateurs who wished to learn the ragtime style that his New York stage success helped to validate.
Harney later played a world tour, leaving the stage in the early 1920s, when health issues made it impossible for him to continue his career. He retired to Philadelphia, where he died in poverty in 1938.