Little heralded even in histories of music that focus on popular song, American songwriter Henry Clay Work (1832–1884) nevertheless left a legacy that lived on in the memories of audiences and musicians.
In the early 1950s, musicologist Richard S. Hill could point to a list of songs by Work "that would be instantly recognized by most Americans today—certainly more songs than by any other mid-nineteenth century writer with the possible exception of George F. Root." Several decades of youth-oriented popular music have displaced some of those songs from memory, but Work still ranks as perhaps the preeminent composer of one of American music's crucial genres, the Civil War song. And Work's serio-comic "Grandfather's Clock" remains a standard in the repertoire of bluegrass musicians and others who cultivate a crop of older songs.
Henry Clay Work was born in Middletown, Connecticut, on October 1, 1832. Of Scottish descent, he took his family name from that of Auld Wark Castle in Scotland. Work moved with his family to Quincy, Illinois, when he was three. His father, Alanson Work, was a noted antislavery activist whose Illinois home served as a way station on the Underground Railroad. The elder Work was arrested and imprisoned for these activities, and after his release the family returned penniless to Connecticut in 1845. There Work received an ordinary high school education and became a printer's apprentice after refusing an apprenticeship with a tailor.
Work had a strong inclination toward music from the start, but financially stable music careers were rare in nineteenth-century America. Like other composers of popular song at the time, he spent parts of his life on the financial margins of society. Working in the print shop of one Elihu Greer in Hartford, Connecticut, he taught himself to read and write music during off-hours. His limited keyboard capabilities came from practice on a melodeon. Work began writing songs of his own to sing to friends, and when he was 21 he experienced his first taste of success: his "We Are Coming, Sister Mary" was purchased by E. P. Christy, leader of the nationally popular singing group Christy's Minstrels. Christy published the song under his own name, but Work nevertheless realized a modest profit.
"We Are Coming, Sister Mary" was a minstrel song, or a song, generally by a white composer, that depicted African-American life and was often performed in blackface makeup. Such songs are now often avoided because of the racist attitudes they contain, but in Work's time they embodied a wide range of attitudes toward African Americans. "We Are Coming, Sister Mary" was not a comic minstrel song but a depiction of a group of people who sing to a departed soul as they prepare for a funeral. Work moved to Chicago in 1854 or 1855, finding work as a printer, and he began to think about how to combine songwriting with the abolitionist sympathies he inherited from his father.
With the outbreak of the Civil War, those abolitionist sympathies turned to wholehearted devotion to the Union cause. After several more small successes, Work showed some of his songs to George F. Root, a partner in the firm of Root & Cady. Root took special interest in one of Work's songs, "Kingdom Coming," and said that if he had more like it, he could retire from the printing business. Work thus not only found a publisher for the Civil War songs that had begun to flow from his pen; he was also hired as editor of Root & Cady's in-house music magazine, The Song Messenger of the Northwest . A legendary story about Work held that he could combine his expertise in music and printing, composing songs directly by setting movable musical type without writing them down in notation or playing them on a piano. The story, however, would seem to contradict the recollections of Root in his autobiography (quoted on the Public Domain Music website) that "Mr. Work was a slow, pains-taking writer, being from one to three weeks upon a song." Root did note that "when the work was done it was like a piece of fine mosaic, especially in the fitting of words to music."
"Kingdom Coming," though written in the ersatz black dialect of minstrelsy, was an explicitly pro-Northern song that depicted slaves chortling as their masters fled the approaching Northern troops. The Root & Cady firm was the largest music publisher in what was then the Western United States, and it mounted perhaps the first music advertising campaign in American history, beginning with plain posters and advertisements that read simply "Kingdom Coming" and then progressed to more detailed publicity supporting sales of the sheet music. The results were spectacularly successful, as the song became known all over North America. It was later collected among traditional singers in the Canadian province of Nova Scotia, and Union soldiers heard slaves themselves singing it in Louisiana. Work could, of course, have based the song on a preexisting slave melody, but observations of it among African Americans corresponded closely to the period when it was popular among whites as well. The song was still familiar in the era of radio entertainment as the theme for the Sunday-evening program of ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his dummy Charlie McCarthy.
"Kingdom Coming" and another Civil War-era Work hit, "Wake Nicodemus," referred to slaves' anticipation of the Jubilee, a biblical concept denoting a year of celebration that was frequently identified among slaves with emancipation. "Wake Nicodemus" maintained its popularity well into the era of early country music in the twentieth century with its depiction of a slave "of African birth" who "was sold for a bag full of gold." At his death, he makes a final request to the children of his masters:" "Wake me up,' was his charge, 'at the first break of day; wake me up for the great Jubilee!" The song was published after President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, marked by the refrain's exclamation that "the good times a-comin' is almost here; it was long, long, long on the way."
The most famous of Work's Civil War songs, however, did not have an African-American theme. "Marching Through Georgia" (1865), based on a rousing march beat, depicted the devastating campaign of General William Tecumseh Sherman in the later stages of the war, as he laid waste to the city of Atlanta and then cut a swath of destruction as his troops marched toward Savannah and the Atlantic. The song, noted historian Sigmund Spaeth, "deliberately rubbed Yankee salt into one of the sorest wounds of the Civil War," and it aroused bitterness among Southerners for some years after his composition. Its "Hurrah! Hurrah!" refrain, however, was irresistible enough to evolve, with modified lyrics, into the fight song of the Princeton University football team.
Work also scored a hit with the comic song "Grafted into the Army," and he was sometimes dubbed the War Poet. But another Work hit of the Civil War era was not connected to the war at all. "Come Home, Father" (1864) was an early example of the temperance song, its theme of a child pleading for an alcoholic father to return home from the barroom serving as a pattern for several similar later compositions. Once again Work's gift for linking words to music (he wrote almost all of his own lyrics) insured the song's success; its melody emphasizes the successive hour strikes of a clock—one, two, three—in the song's verses. The overall maudlin atmosphere of the song inspired parodies in later years, but parodies themselves attest to the familiarity of the originals on which they are based.
By the end of the war, Work was one of the most popular musicians in the United States, and his songs, along with those of Root and minstrel balladeer Stephen Foster, had set a prevailing pattern: that of verse and chorus, with the chorus centered around a memorable detail that would later be called a "hook" in American popular songs, a pattern that would last well into the twentieth century. Life turned sour, however, for Work in the late 1860s. He lost money investing in a New Jersey fruit farm and was once again reduced to bare essentials—the concept of copyright was unknown at the time, and such money he had earned from Root & Cady came in the form of flat fees. In 1871 he left Chicago, after his office burned to the ground in the great fire of that year. Work settled in Philadelphia and resumed his former occupation of print shop employee. He wrote songs occasionally, but his output tailed off sharply between 1865 and the early 1870s. His few successes included "The Ship That Never Returned" (1865), which lived on in the melody of the early country hit "The Wreck of the Old 97." In 1868 Work published a long comic poem called "The Upshot Family."
Nor was Work's family life happy. His wife suffered from mental illness and had to be institutionalized. Of Work's four children, two died in childhood and another, a son named Waldo, contracted tuberculosis and died after he and Work had embarked on a long outdoor tour of the California mountains. Work rented rooms in Philadelphia from a family named Mitchell, and he centered his frustrated romantic attentions on the daughter of the family, named Susie. No relationship resulted, and it was partly to escape the dead-end situation that Work undertook his California trip.
He kept up a voluminous correspondence with Susie Mitchell, however, and his link to her seemed to result in a revival of his creativity. Temporarily returning to Chicago in 1875, he had one more major hit with "Grandfather's Clock," a song about a clock that accompanies a man through life: it was "bought on the morn of the day that he was born, and was always his treasure and pride. But it stopped short, never to go again, when the old man died." Sheet music for the song was reported to have sold 800,000 copies and to have brought Work $4,000 in profits. "Grandfather's Clock" was still going strong in the early twenty-first century, performed by brass bands in England and by Japanese vocalists and jazz artists. In 2004 the song appeared in a cover version by R&B vocal group Boyz II Men.
Moving to the small town of Bath, New York, in 1882, Work composed several songs that were not widely distributed but that historians regard as among his best; these include "The Silver Horn" and "Drop the Pink Curtains." He died suddenly from a coronary episode in Hartford, Connecticut, on June 8, 1884.
Epstein, Dena J., Music Publishing in Chicago Before 1871: The Firm of Root & Cady , Information Coordinators, 1969.
Hitchcock, H. Wiley, and Stanley Sadie, eds., The New Grove Dictionary of American Music , Macmillan, 1986.
Howard, John Tasker, Our American Music , 4th ed., Crowell, 1965.
Spaeth, Sigmund, A History of Popular Music in America , Random House, 1948.
Music Library Association Notes , March 1953.
"Henry C. Work," Songwriters Hall of Fame, http://www.songwritershalloffame.org (January 31, 2007).
"The Music of Henry Clay Work," Public Domain Music, http://www.pdmusic.org/work.html (January 31, 2007).