Louisville: Birthplace of Ragtime

By Joyce Trammell

Taken From a Pamphlet by N. David Williams

Can Louisville really be the birthplace of ragtime, that style of music whose popularity lasted for eighteen years, second in length only to rock?

According to N. David Williams "the very word ragtime may have come from the saloons in west Louisville, and the first cakewalk ever danced was advertized (sic) for the first time in the Louisville papers in 1888."

Williams does not deny the importance of Scott Joplin, Kansas City and Saint Louis to ragtime, but he also points out that Joplin's mother was from Kentucky, as was Shelby Countian John Stillwell, ragtime's first big publisher.

Stating that "the first true ragtime tunes ever published were composed by Kentuckian, Ben Harney, in Louisville, during the years 1890-1895," Williams also notes that ". . . the men at Tom Johnson's dance hall at 10th and Green Streets may have been the first to hoist their beer mugs in time with Harney's Knock-'em-down-drag-'em-out piano playing. When he walked into the place, the men, according to the story, would chorus; 'Take off your rag (hat), Ben, and play us those new songs.' After a time, whenever Harney walked through the door, the men would say simply, 'It's Ragtime'."

"Benjamin Robertson Harney was born at Middlesboro (Ky.) . . . in 1871, but very early in life his father moved to Louisville, taking up residence apparently with his widowed mother and his brother on Walnut between Floyd and Preston."

According to Williams, "the story of Harney's rise to fame is one of the most colorful episodes in the history of ragtime. In July 1890, Harney was already a regular piano player at Mr. Johnson's dance hall . . . . On one particular summer afternoon, Harney was fiddling on the piano, improvising a tune which some anonymous barfly picked up and liked. He asked Harney what it's name was, but Harney replied that it had no name.

"The patron told him that he should have it published, so that night Harney asked his boss to "turn him loose" so that he might go home and finish his song.

"Two weeks later, the song was published and Harney played it . . . in Chicago. 'From that moment,' according to a 1950 article in the Louisville Courier-Journal,' Mr. Johnson Turn Me Loose' was the rage.

"'Mr. Johnson' is not only considered the first rudimentary ragtime song, but it contains elements of what would later be known as 'rhythm and blues', or, simply, 'the blues'. Can Louisville also lay claim as the birthplace of the blues?" Williams asks.

"In January of 1895 . . . Harney wrote 'You've Been A Good Ol' Wagon, But You've Done Broke Down'. He took the song to Mr. Bruner Greenup, owner of Greenup's Music Company on Jacob Street . . . . After a series of mishaps and lawsuits . . . the song was sold for $25.00 to a Cincinnati entrepreneur who recognized it immediately as the first true ragtime song in print.

"From 1895 until the pre-(First World) War Years, Harney would find his fame and fortune at last and he toured the country under the billing of 'Inventor of Ragtime'.

"Ragtime finally burst upon the national scene in February 1896 and even more in April when Harney performed his music at Keith's Union Square Theatre in New York City and Tony Pastor's on Broadway."

Thanks to the N. David Williams pamphlet found in the Filson Club, we can say, as he does, that "the name of Louisvillian Benjamin Harney remains, along with Scott Joplin's, one of the most illustrious in the history of ragtime."