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Henry Clay Work and “Marching Through Georgia”


Henry Clay Work (October 1, 1832 – June 8, 1884) was an American composer and songwriter.  Work was born on October 1, 1832, in Middletown, CT, to Alanson and Amelia (Forbes) Work. His father opposed slavery, and Work was himself an active abolitionist and Union supporter. His family’s home became a stop on the Underground Railroad, assisting runaway slaves to freedom in Canada, for which his father was once imprisoned.  Work was self-taught in music. By the time he was 23, he worked as a printer in Chicago, specializing in setting musical type. He allegedly composed in his head as he worked, without a piano, using the noise of the machinery as an inspiration. His first published song was “We Are Coming, Sister Mary,” which eventually became a staple in Christy’s Minstrels shows.  He is credited with  75 compositions.

Work produced much of his best material during the Civil War. He captured the deeply-felt emotions of that conflict and was more popular even than Stephen Foster. Work shares much of the credit for the development of the carefully refined Verse-Chorus structure of late 19th century popular song.  In 1862 he published “Kingdom Coming” using his own lyrics based upon snippets of Negro speech he had heard. This use of slave dialect (Irish too was a favorite) tended to limit the appeal of Work’s works and make them frowned upon today. 1862 also saw his novelty song “Grafted Into the Army”, followed in 1863 by “Babylon is Fallen” (“Don’t you see the black clouds risin’ ober yonder”), “The Song of a Thousand Years”, and “God Save the Nation”. His 1864 effort “Wake Nicodemus” was popular in minstrel shows.

Timothy Shay Arthur’s play Ten Nights in a Barroom, had Work’s 1864 “Come Home, Father,” a dirgesome song bemoaning the demon drink: too mawkish for modern tastes, but always sung at Temperance Meetings.  At the end of the American Civil War in 1865, Work wrote his greatest hit, “Marching Through Georgia” (sometimes spelled as “Marching Thru’ Georgia” or “Marching Thro Georgia”), inspired by U.S. Army major general William T. Sherman’s “March to the Sea” to capture the Confederate city of Savannah, Georgia in late 1864. The song, sung from the point of view of a Union soldier, tells of marching through Georgian territory, freeing slaves, meeting Unionist men glad to see the U.S. flag and U.S. soldiers, and punishing the Confederacy for their starting the war.  Thanks to its lively melody, the song was immensely popular, especially with Union Army veterans after the American Civil War, its million sheet-music sales being unprecedented.

Personal problems, including the deaths of three children, seem to have affected his postwar output Settling into sentimental balladry, Work had significant post-Civil War success with “The Lost Letter,” and “The Ship That Never Returned”—a tune reused in the “Wreck of the Old 97” and “MTA.”  A massive hit was “My Grandfather’s Clock,” published in 1876, which was introduced by Sam Lucas in Hartford, CT, and again secured more than a million sales of the sheet music, along with popularizing the phrase “grandfather clock” to describe a longcase clock.”  By 1880 Work was living in New York City, NY, giving his occupation as a musician.  He died in Hartford four years later, June 8, 1884, at the age of 51. He was survived by his wife, Sarah Parker Work, and one of their four children,  Henry Clay Work’s headstone is in Spring Grove Cemetery, Hartford, CT.

“Marching Through Georgia” \is a cheerful marching song and has since been pressed into service many times, including by Princeton University as a football fight song.  Outside of the Southern United States, it had a widespread appeal.  The British Army sang it in India, and an English town thought the tune was appropriate to welcome southern American troops in World War II. The song remains popular with brass bands, and its tune has been adapted to other popular songs, including the  anthem of Glasgow Rangers Football Club “Billy Boys” and “Come In, Come In.” It was also sung by a carpetbagger in “Gone with the Wind,” and Ann Sheridan in “Dodge City.”  Henry Clay Work was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1970. He was a distant cousin to Frances Work, a great-grandmother of Diana, Princess of Wales.Among the best-known of Henry Clay   Also “Kingdom Coming” appeared in the Jerome Kern show “Good Morning, Dearie” on Broadway in 1921, and was heard in the background in the 1944 Judy Garland film “Meet Me in St. Louis.”

The following work by Henry Clay Work is contained in my collection:

Marching Through Georgia

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