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Folk-Songs of America: The Robert Winslow Gordon Collection, 1922-1932

Band B4

After finishing his performance of "The Wagon" Ben Harney (1871-1938) announced to Gordon's recording machine: "This is absolutely the first song published in ragtime; the first song ever written in ragtime. The idea was conceived by Ben Harney, in Louisville, Kentucky." The remainder of his statement was indistinct, but he continued to tell of his central role in the introduction of ragtime to the American public.

In 1924 the New York Times called Harney "a white man who had a fine Negro shouting voice, [who] probably did more to popularize ragtime than any other person." He had heard the "new music" in Louisville, became "adept at it," and brought it to New York, where he appeared at the Weber and Fields Music Hall, introducing it in a "first-class theater"(Berlin, p 49). In recent years ragtime pianist Eubie Blake has asserted that Harney was actually an Afro-American who succeeded in "passing" as white.

In 1918 Harney "offered to leave the profession and forfeit one hundred dollars if anyone could submit a rag predating his own ragtime songs, the earliest being ‘You've Been A Good Old Wagon But You've Done Broke Down' (1895) and ‘Mister Johnson, Turn Me Loose' (1896)" (Berlin, p.49). He was not challenged. But even at the time it was obvious that his primary claim was not for originating the form, but for bringing it to the attention of the public through his vaudeville performances. He went on to a career which included a number of innovative uses of ragtime, such as performing classical piano pieces in ragtime style. He also published the first ragtime piano primer, The Ragtime Instructor, in 1897 (Ewen, pp. 166-67).

Harney was forced to retire in 1923, after a heart attack, and spent his final years in poverty and declining health in Philadelphia (Blesh, pp. 225-30). It is not known when or where Gordon recorded him, but an indistinct announcement on one of the five cylinders which he made seems to place the session on September 9, 1925, about a month before Gordon's first North Carolina recordings of Lewey and Noell.

Though it is uncertain when Gordon made the recordings, there is no doubt about his interest in ragtime and in Harney, who was "evidence" for the use of black music in the context of white entertainment. Ragtime's beginnings and popularity represented a recurrent theme in American music—the assimilation of an Afro-American folk form by national popular music. Gordon was interested in other manifestations of this process—minstrel music and spirituals—and in this interest anticipated the thought and viewpoint which many later scholars took towards various forms of jazz and, most recently, rock music.

The song itself is deceptively simple; Harney's syncopated piano accompaniment is more "ragtime" than his singing, although it is hard to tell from this performance how Harney would have sounded with a piano accompaniment. The tune is similar to that of "The Crawdad Song," and almost all the verses can be found in standard folksong collections. For instance, a single collection—Volume III of the Frank C. Brown omnibus from North Carolina—contains at least four songs which have elements of either verse or structure which parallel "The Wagon": "The Dummy Line" (p. 521), "Sugar Babe" (p. 550), and "Went Down Town" and "Standin' On The Street Doin' No Harm" (p. 562). Of course, because Harney published his text in 1895 and performed it frequently for the next thirty years, it is quite possible that at least some of the texts recorded by folksong collectors during the early decades of this century reflect the popularity of Harney's song.

THE WAGON [MP3 file]
Gordon cyl. G24, Item misc.37
Ben Harney
Philadelphia, Pa. [?]
Sept 9, 1925 [?]

Well, jumped on the dummy, didn't have no fare this mornin',
Jumped on the dummy didn't have no fare, this mornin',
Jumped on the dummy didn't have no air,
Went around the circle didn't get no where,
This mornin', this evenin'.

Standin' on the corner, wasn't doin' no harm, this mornin',
Standin' on the corner, wasn't doin' no harm, oh, this mornin',
Standin' on the corner, wasn't doin' no harm,
When a copper a-grabbed me by my arm
A-this mornin'.

Judge asked a-me what a-had I done, this mornin',
Judge asked a-me what a-had I done, this mornin',
Judge asked me what a-had I done,
You standing on the corner just a-grabbing a gun
A-this mornin'.
Judge says, "I get..."

Judge and the jury they sent for me, this mornin',
Judge and the jury they said to me, this mornin',
Judge and the jury they said to me,
You killed three niggers in the first degree
A-this mornin'.

Well, bye bye, my honey, if you call it gone, a-this mornin',
Bye bye my honey if you call it gone, a-this evenin',
Bye bye my honey if you call it gone,
You been a good old wagon but you done broke down
This mornin', this evenin', so soon.

Well a-lookin' for the one big hand-out a-this mornin',
Looking for the one big hand-out a-this mornin',
Looking for the one big hand-out,
That make my body so stiff and stout
A-this mornin', this evenin', so soon.

 

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