While listening to a performance of Four Australian Folksongs yesterday, it seemed to me that one of the songs I didn't know, "Click Go the Shears," had a particularly catchy tune. On investigation, I found that that tune had been lifted directly from "Ring the Bell, Watchman," a Civil War-era song that was one of the lesser known hits of Henry Clay Work.
Work has somehow been forgotten while his similar contemporary, Stephen Foster, is remembered, and that's a shame, because Work was just as good a songwriter and has had a deeper cultural impact than is realized. He was born to an anti-slavery Connecticut family in 1832, while his namesake was running for President against Andrew Jackson (he lost). That made Work 6 years younger than Foster, and he lived 20 years longer, until 1884. I'm here today to pay tribute to him. Here's some of the best of Work's works, mostly as sung by performers of note:
Johnny Cash sings My Grandfather's Clock:
This is the one Work song that may be considered to have lasted the course in American popular culture, at least as far as my own childhood, when I was familiar with it, though not with the composer's name attached. Allan Sherman wrote a parody version.
Tennessee Ernie Ford sings Marching Through Georgia:
This Civil War boast ballad was Work's biggest hit during his own lifetime, to the extent that General Sherman grew sick of it, because it was played at every public appearance he made. The tune is incredibly catchy, and I'm stunned that I never heard it until, curious about frequent references to the song in books about the war, I looked it up.
Doc Watson sings The Ship That Never Returned:
Does this sound vaguely like "The Wreck of the Old 97" or even more vaguely like the Kingston Trio's "MTA"? It should. This is the original from which those more famous spinoffs were altered.
Ken Burns Civil War documentary soundtrack version of Kingdom Coming:
Yep, this piece of Burns background music is a Work song. You don't want to hear the lyrics to this one, because it's in "darkie" dialect. Stephen Foster did some of these too. Oh dear.
Maddy Prior and the Carnival Band sing Ring the Bell, Watchman
Or, since this grouping specializes in nonconformist hymn tunes, you might prefer a less dirge-like rendition, like this one:
This is the song whose tune (and some of the words, actually) were lifted for the Australian sheep-shearing ballad "Click Go the Shears," which you may hear sung by the Australian national child-molesting balladeer, Rolf Harris, here. Sorry, but it is the best version I found online.