October 1, 1832, Middletown, Connecticut.
June 8, 1884, Hartford, Connecticut.
Spring Grove Cemetery, Hartford, Connecticut.
Henry was the son of Alanson Work and Aurelia E. Forbes.
Hiss father opposed slavery, and Work was himself an active abolitionist and Union supporter. His family’s home became a stop on the Underground Railroad, helping 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, Illinois, specializing in setting musical type. It was said he composed in his head as he worked, without a piano, using the noise of the machinery as inspiration. His first published song was We Are Coming, Sister Mary, which eventually became a staple in Christy’s Minstrels shows.
Work produced much of his best material during the American civil war. In 1862, he published Kingdom Coming using his own lyrics, based upon snippets of black speech he had heard. This use of slave dialect (Irish was also a favorite) tended to limit the appeal of Work’s material and make it politically incorrect today. However, 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. 1862 also saw Work’s 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.
In 1865 Work wrote his greatest hit, inspired by General William Tecumseh Sherman’s march to the sea, Marching Through Georgia, at the end of the previous year. Thanks to its lively melody, the song was immensely popular, its million sheet music sales being unprecedented. A cheerful marching song, it has since been pressed into service many times, including by Princeton University as a football fight song. Timothy Shay Arthur’s play
Ten Nights in a Barroom, had Work’s 1864 Come Home, Father, a dirge bemoaning the demon drink: too mawkish for modern tastes, but popular at temperance meetings.
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. Another hit was My Grandfather’s Clock, published in 1876, which was introduced by Sam Lucas in Hartford, Connecticut, sold over a million copies, and popularized the term
By 1880, Work was living in New York City, giving his occupation as a musician. He 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.