- The Washington Times - Friday, January 23, 2004

Henry Clay Work never hurried when he was writing a song. His lyrics were crafted carefully, and the musical setting was of a high standard. He was capable of projecting broad humor (“Now, Moses!”) or the desperation of a child with a dying brother whose father will not leave the tavern (“Come Home, Father!”).

He became best known — renowned, in fact — for “Marching Through Georgia” (1865), a celebration of Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s March to the Sea, which made him no friends in the South. Neither, curiously enough, did Sherman like the song; the general was not a man to jeer at a beaten foe.

Work’s output was fairly modest, and the majority of his works (but certainly not “Grandfather’s Clock”) have been forgotten. His life was shadowed by tragedy, and there was a time when it seems he wrote and composed very little.

He was born Oct. 1, 1832, in Middletown. Conn. His father, Alanson, was a fervent abolitionist who in 1835 moved the family to Illinois, where he became involved with the Underground Railroad.

Helping blacks escape slavery was illegal in the North, and Alanson Work was jailed in 1841. When he was pardoned in 1845, he was destitute and returned to New England with his family. Henry stayed behind to be brought up by friends. He, too, would support abolition, directing his disapproval of the South through some of his best-known songs.

He became a printer but soon was attracted to songwriting. His initial effort, “We Are Coming, Sister Mary” (early 1850s), earned him very little, although it was sung by the Christy Minstrels .

Work continued to write songs while supporting himself as a printer, but it wasn’t until 1862 that he had a breakthrough with two hit songs in a single year. Published by Root & Cady of Chicago (Work had been encouraged by George F. Root), the songs were “Grafted Into the Army,” in which a “lone widder” bewailed the enforced enlistment of her son in language reminiscent of Mrs. Malaprop, and “Kingdome Coming,” which derided a grotesquely caricatured cotton planter. Work decided to abandon printing and make a living by writing songs.

Throughout the Civil War, Work produced highly individual songs, among them “Uncle Joe’s ‘Hail, Columbia!’” (1862), “Babylon Is Fallen” (1863) and “Wake Nicodemus” (1864). His most controversial song appeared in 1865 — “Marching Through Georgia.”

Work had married about 1857 and settled in Chicago, perhaps to be near his publishers. The marriage seems to have been happy enough until 1865, when his wife became mentally ill. She went to live with family and eventually had to be placed in an asylum. Their children were entrusted to other relatives.

The distraught Work moved to Philadelphia, where he became infatuated with Susie Mitchell, a girl of 18. She had no wish to become involved with a married man much older than herself, and she gave Henry Work no encouragement. Nevertheless, Work poured out his love for her in many letters and even continued to write to her after he moved to New York. (His fruitless infatuation with Susie Mitchell persisted right up to the time of her wedding in June 1877.)

Desperately unhappy, Work wrote fewer songs and went back to printing, also dabbling in other activities. Eventually, his output of songs increased and, surprisingly, even when writing little, he never lost his ability to project genuine humor. Unlike Stephen Foster, whose lamp also burned low, Work maintained a high standard.

“The Silver Horn” (1883) is a strange, hauntingly beautiful song about a dying bugler whose beloved horn peals out unaided by his failing breath. That song, his last, made no impression on the public.

Henry Clay Work moved from New York City to Bath, N.Y., and finally to Hartford, Conn., where he died on June 8, 1884.

Peter Cliffe, a retired administrator for a multinational corporation, lives in Hertfordshire, England, and became interested in the Civil War while spending time in this country.

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