Ben Harney is generally said to have been born in Louisville, Kentucky, although some sources put his birthplaces as Nashville, Tennessee. Harney was light skinned with red hair; early in his career he played with African American theater troops, but later in his career he represented himself as white. James P. Johnson referred to him as a "Negro", while W.C. Handy referred to him as "white". Some historians still debate Harney's ethnic background.
Harney's tunes "You've Been a Good Old Wagon, But You've Done Broke Down", "Mister Johnson, Turn Me Loose", and "Cake Walk In The Sky" were big hits in the mid 1890s.
In 1897 Harney published his book The Ragtime Instructor, the first comprehensive description of ragtime, with instructions of how to rag (add syncopated rhythms to) tunes, including giving written examples of ragged versions of light classics and opera songs.
Harney toured widely on the Vaudeville circuts in the USA, as well as tours of theaters in Europe and Asia. Once ragtime became popular he started billing himself as The Originator of Ragtime or The Father of Ragtime, which most (but not all) of his contemporaries thought was an overstatement for the sake of advertising. Harney's act included him playing piano, singing (including scat singing), and dancing. He sometimes performed in blackface.
Ben Harney died of a heart attack in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.