Richard Harney was born on 16 July 1902 to Mary Howard and Dick Harney of Money. Although Dick Harney had forgone secular music to become a church deacon, he did not hesitate to teach his children to play together as long as they did not practice in the house. This early musical training served Harney well, as he took to playing on the street corners of Greenville with his oldest brother, Joe, at the age of twelve.
Richard Harney later found a number of ways to earn a living. After farming and then playing guitar on the street, he worked as a bassist for a Cincinnati jazz band in the early 1920s and subsequently supported himself as a piano tuner and repairman. Although his nickname has sometimes been erroneously attributed to a short stint as a boxer, musician Pinetop Perkins insisted that the moniker resulted from Harney’s ability to fashion replacement piano parts on the spot, using virtually any materials and the tool that became his namesake. The nickname may also have reflected the frequent statement that Hacksaw’s ability on the guitar could cut other musicians in two.
Though Harney was a master of piano, he was best known among his fellow musicians for his guitar work. Returning to the Delta, Harney formed a guitar duo with his brother, Maylon. Known by their family nicknames, Pet and Can, they recorded two sides backing vocalist and accordion player Walter “Pat” Rhodes as well as another two sides with Pearl Dickson. Pet and Can’s musical career came to a sudden end when Maylon was stabbed to death in a juke joint.
Hacksaw Harney apparently met and admired both Blind Lemon Jefferson and Charley Patton; however, his guitar work is more consistent with the ragtime-influenced Piedmont style prevalent in Georgia and the Carolinas. Using an intricate and percussive finger-picking technique in combination with chord progressions heavily colored by his background in jazz, Harney developed a unique sound. Hacksaw’s signature style influenced Delta legend Robert Johnson, with whom he often traded licks, as well as sometime member of the Mississippi Sheiks Eugene “Sonny Boy Nelson” Powell.
In addition to the death of his brother, a speech impediment and naturally shy disposition prevented Harney from achieving fame in his youth. When he attempted to play with other musicians he was often ridiculed for his disability, at least until his superior ability made them look like amateurs. Though he possessed remarkable skill on a number of instruments, work as a piano tuner in Clarksdale and Jackson became his primary source of income until he was rediscovered in 1969. Although he no longer owned a guitar and claimed not to have played in twenty years, Harney was soon filmed and recorded by Adelphi Records and began playing festivals and workshops in 1971. Despite suffering a minor stroke, he toured with recording partner Houston Stackhouse in 1972–73. He died of stomach cancer on Christmas morning 1973.
- Denise Tapp, Richard “Hacksaw” Harney, Sweet Man (1996), liner notes