Henry Clay Work (October 1, 1832 - June 8, 1884) was an American composer and songwriter. Very little is known about him. He was born in Middletown, Connecticut, the son of a prominent opponent of slavery, and he too was also an active abolitionist and Union supporter. His home became a stop on the Underground Railroad, and was instrumental in the escape of several thousand slaves seeking freedom, for which his father was imprisoned.
Henry was self taught in music. By the time he was 23, he was working as a printer in Chicago. He specialised in setting musical type. It was said that he composed in his head as he worked, without the assistance of a piano, using the noises of the machinery as inspiration. He was also compiling lyrics. His first published song was 'We Are Coming, Sister Mary', which eventually became a staple in Christy's Minstrels shows.
He produced much of his best material during the Civil War years. In 1862 he published 'Kingdom Coming' using his own lyric based upon snippets of Negro speech which he had heard. This use of dialect (Irish too was a favourite) tended to limit the appeal of Work's works and hastened their decline into obscurity. However, 'Kingdom Coming' appeared in the Jerome Kern show 'Good Morning Dearie' on Broadway in 1921, and it was heard in the background in the 1944 Judy Garland picture 'Meet Me in St Louis'. 1862 saw 'Grafted Into the Army', followed in 1863 by 'Babylon is Fallen', 'The Song of a Thousand Years' and 'God Save the Nation'. The 1864 effort 'Wake Nicodemus' was popular in minstrel shows. In 1865 he wrote his greatest hit, inspired by Sherman's march to the sea, 'Marching Through Georgia'. This song was immensely popular, the million sheet-music sales being virtually unprecedented. It is a marching song almost sans pareil, having been pressed into service regularly from that day to this, not least by Princeton University as a football 'Fight' song. Timothy Shay Arthur's play Ten Nights in a Barroom, had the song 'Come Home, Father', a dirgesome ditty bemoaning the demon drink which is rather too mawkish for modern tastes, but which has always gone down well at Temperance Meetings.
Settling into a groove with his sentimental balladry, Work had significant post-Civil War success with the likes of 'The Lost Letter' and 'The Ship That Never Returned'. A massive hit was 'My Grandfather's Clock', published in 1876, which was introduced by Sam Lucas in Hartford, and went on to secure more than a million sales of the sheet music.
Henry Clay Work died in Hartford, and was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1970. He was a distant cousin to Frances Work who was the great-grandmother of the late Diana, Princess of Wales.
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