Sunday, February 23, 2014

American Music: Ben Harney, The Father of Ragtime.

Genealogy Forum: Benjamin Robertson Harney (1872 - 1938) Ragtime

"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".

 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.

Style and Rhythm: Bluegrass vs Ragtime Music

   The styles of ragtime and bluegrass are very alike due to their presto/allegro tempos (the actual speed depends on each song, but is usually around 180 beats per minute) and their utilization of a pulsating background beat. In bluegrass, the banjo would take this place and in ragtime, the low voices in the band or the left hand of the piano player would perform the bass part of the song. Both genres are considered exciting because of the syncopated rhythms in the melody which yields a feel of “short-long-short” (Performing Arts Encyclopedia). The syncopation causes an individual to feel
a swing or propulsion (Performing Arts Encyclopedia).

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