The son of an ardent abolitionist, Henry Clay Work was born in Connecticut in 1832. He trained as a printer and started a career setting musical type. Along the way, he taught himself music. By 1853, he had moved to Chicago and started writing his own songs. His first publication, “We Are Coming, Sister Mary,” became nationally famous after the Christy Minstrels started performing it regularly. After a fatal shipwreck on Lake Michigan, Work wrote the music to “Lost on the Lady Elgin,” and even that song was published in New York as well as Chicago.
Not long after the Civil War started, Work stopped by the firm of Root & Cady with a song he had just written, hoping to get it published. At that time, composers would try to sell pieces to publishers for a flat fee. They had no further financial interest, because they had sold all the rights. Work had paid similar calls on every other music publisher in town.
The firm’s chief of publications, George F. Root, a successful songwriter himself, recalled his first encounter with Work in his autobiography, The Story of a Musical Life. Work had brought in the song “Kingdom Coming.” Diffident and poorly dressed, he certainly didn’t look the part of a successful song writer. Root quickly decided that the song was very good, well suited to the times, and that the words fit the melody “almost as aptly and neatly as Gilbert fits Sullivan.”
So he asked Work if he had written the words and music himself. Work said he had. Then Root asked about his business. Learning that Work was a printer, Root asked if he wouldn’t rather write music than set type for it. Of course, Work liked the idea, and soon joined Root & Cady as a full-time song writer.
Work’s most successful war songs
By the time the war was over, “Kingdom Coming” (published in 1862) had sold 75,000 copies in sheet music, not to mention various instrumental arrangements and publication in numerous anthologies and songsters. The following songs sold nearly as well:
- Grafted Into the Army (1862)
- Wake Nicodemus (1864)
- Marching Through Georgia (1865)
The Library of Congress Civil War Sheet Music Collection has the following additional songs by Work published during the war:
- Brave Boys Are They! (1861)
- Our Captain’s Last Words (1861)
- Little Major (1862)
- Ring the Bell, Watchman! (1862)
- Uncle Joe’s Hail Columbia! (1862)
- We’ll Go Down Ourselves (1862)
- Babylon Is Fallen (1863)
- Columbia’s Guardian Angels (1863)
- Sleeping for the Flag (1863)
- Song of a Thousand Years (1863)
- Washington and Lincoln (1864)
- ‘Tis Finished, or Sing Hallelujah (1865)
Although these songs are much less well known today than Work’s four best-selling songs, several of them were republished by other publishers into the 1890s. In fact, even today the firm of Hal Leonard sells his songs. Work composed only a few songs after 1866, but they include his greatest hit ever, “Grandfather’s Clock” (1875).
Henry C. Work
Library of Congress Civil War Sheet Music Collection
Yesterdays: Popular Song in America / Charles Hamm (W. W. Norton, 1979)