Noted Civil War songwriter wrote many minstrel show standards
Wrote "Marching Through Georgia" inspired by Sherman's march to the sea, sold unprecedented 1 million copies of sheet music
Henry Clay Work was born in Middletown, Connecticut on October 1, 1832 the son of an abolitionist. Like his father, Work too was also an active abolitionist and Union supporter. His home became a stop on the underground railway, and was instrumental in the escape of several thousand slaves seeking freedom.
Clay, a self-taught musician, was trained as a printer and began a career setting musical type. In 1853, working as a printer in Chicago, his first song was published, “We Are Coming, Sister Mary.” The song would become a staple in the Christy Minstrels over the next 10 years. In 1857, Work met and married Sarah Parker and the couple had four children, Waldo, Willie, Ellen and Clara.
During the Civil War, Work composed several popular songs including “Kingdom Coming!”, “Grafted Into the Army”, “Babylon is Fallen”, “Brave Boys Are They”, “Little Major”, “The Song of a Thousand Years”, “God Save the Nation”, “Wake Nicodemus”, “Marching Through Georgia” (later adopted as Princeton University’s football fight song), “Come Home Father”, “The Lost Letter” and “The Ship That Never Returned”.
Work’s nephew wrote in the biography of his uncle, Songs of Henry Clay Work: “Know the songs of a country, and you will know its history for the true feeling of a people speaks through what they sing. During a period of great stress,the popular songs of the day invariably give the most accurate expression of the popular mind. What the people of the North thought and felt before and during the Civil War is clearly mirrored by the song writers of the period, among whom the name of Henry Clay Work leads all the rest. He is often termed the War Poet. Author of "Marching Through Georgia," he would, had he written no other song, have due claim to the title. In addition, he wrote the "Song of a Thousand Years," and many another famous war song. The melody and verse of Henry Clay Work, however, reveal more than the national history of the Civil War. They picture, they record the life of America as it was changing from the last pioneer days into the present great industrial era.
Perhaps one of his greatest songs “Grandfather’s Clock” was published in 1876 and became a successful hit of the 1880’s. His songs were featured in several Minstrel shows and included in the Broadway shows Good Morning Dearie and Meet Me In St. Louis. In 1868, a book of serio-comic poetry was published by Work entitled The Upshot Family.
Reflecting on the songs of Henry Clay Work, publisher and songwriter George F. Root wrote in his autobiography The Story of A Musical Life: “One day early in the war a quiet and rather solemn-looking young man, poorly clad, was sent up to my room from the store with a song for me to examine. I looked at it and that at him in my astonishment. It was "Kingdom Coming," --elegant in manuscript, full of bright, good sense and comical situations in its "darkey" dialect--the words fitting the melody almost as aptly and neatly as Gilbert fits Sullivan--the melody decidedly good and taking, and the whole exactly suited to the times. "Did you write this--words and music?" I asked. A gentle "Yes" was the answer. "What is your business, if I may inquire?" "I am a printer." Would you rather write music than set type?" "Yes." "Well, if this is a specimen of what you can do, I think you may give up the printing business." He liked that idea very much, and an arrangement with us was soon made. He needed some musical help that I could give him, and we needed just such songs as he could write. The connection, which continued some years, proved very profitable both to him and to us. This was Henry C. Work, whose principal songs while he was with us were "Kingdom Coming," "Babylon is Fallen," Wake, Nicodemus," "Ring the Bell, Watchman," "Song of a Thousand Years," "Marching Thro' Georgia" and "Come Home, Father." Mr. Work was a slow, pains-taking writer, being from one to three weeks upon a song; but when the work was done it was like a piece of fine mosaic, especially in the fitting of words to music. His "Marching Thro' Georgia" is more played and sung at the present time than any other song of the war. This is not only on account of the intrinsic merit of its words and music, but because it is a retrospective. Other war songs, "The Battle-cry of Freedom" for example, were for exciting the patriotic feeling on going in to the war or the battle; "Marching Tho' Georgia" is a glorious remembrance on coming triumphantly out, and so has been more appropriate to soldiers' and other gatherings ever since.”
Henry Clay Work died in Hartford, Connecticut on June 8, 1884.
Henry C. Work Song List:
BABYLON IS FALLEN
BRAVE BOYS ARE THEY
COME HOME, FATHER
GOD SAVE THE NATION
GRAFTED INTO THE ARMY
LOVE LETTER, THE
MARCHING THROUGH GEORGIA
SHIP THAT NEVER RETURNED, THE
SONG OF A THOUSAND YEARS, THE
WE ARE COMING, SISTER MARY