Middletown, Connecticut hosts a statue on its town common, Union Green, to honor Henry Clay Work. This self-taught 19th century song composer was born in Middletown. His songs were extremely popular around the time of the Civil War, probably most famous of which was the spirited “Marching Through Georgia.” (Listen here on YouTube.)
Mr. Work’s family moved to Illinois when he was a small child, and were ardent abolitionists. His father was once arrested and imprisoned for helping runaway slaves to escape; his home was a stop on the Underground Railroad. After his release from prison, the family, now penniless, moved back to Connecticut.
Henry Clay Work started as a printer’s apprentice as a young man, but composed songs, without a piano, but with meticulous precision in his head. “Kingdom Coming” was another hit, and the sorrowful temperance ballad -- now lampooned in parody -- “Come Home, Father” (Father, dear Father, come home with me now…).
His last huge hit was “My Grandfather’s Clock” in 1876. (Listen here on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wHvOyuwJZnE)
Though Mr. Work’s music sold well in his lifetime, copyright as we know it did not exist, and poor investments made money a constant worry. He died in his 50s of apparent heart trouble in 1884.
Popular music today may generate fame and fortune, but rarely has the social impact that it had in the 19th century. Henry Clay Work’s songs reflected their era, spoke for a generation, and affected change as well.