Music: Stealing my grandfather’s clock
Free Press Music Columnist
I have a cherished memory. And maybe, just maybe, it’s one you hold dearly yourself.
Be advised — I’m not talking to the youngbloods here. If you were born later than the 1960s, it’s highly unlikely you’re going to relate to Craven’s nostalgifyin’ today. Now, you may indeed know the song we’re discussing in the next 524 words, at least if you’re a fan of the Philadelphia vocal group, Boys II Men (themselves now considered a nostalgia act, or so Craven is told by whippersnappers), seeing as how they recorded a version of the song 10 years ago.
But I daresay if you’re on the south side of 50, your grandmother never sang you to sleep with a song that was already old when she was born. Craven can still recall the woolen guest blanket he’d be tucked into on nights spent at his grandparents’ house, and how his grandmother would sit to the right of his bed and softly sing the four verses and chorus of “My Grandfather’s Clock.” He’ll never forget the song’s story about an old longcase clock bought on the day the singer’s grandfather was born. And Craven will likewise never forget his grandmother’s sweet, trembling soprano keening of the song’s famous chorus:
“Ninety years without slumbering (tick, tock, tick, tock),
His life’s seconds numbering (tick, tock, tick, tock),
It stopped short, never to go again,
When the old man died.”
In case that lyric or the title doesn’t ring a bell, here’s the backstory of an American classic … and I’ll warn you: It isn’t altogether pretty.
That “My Grandfather’s Clock” was written in 1876 and was a gargantuan hit in its day is undisputed historical fact. Long before the recording industry was a thing (in fact, two years before Thomas Edison publicly demonstrated his newfangled phonograph for the first time), “My Grandfather’s Clock” reportedly sold over a million copies of sheet music. But who wrote it? Ah, there lies the mystery.
The song has always been credited to Henry Clay Work. Most of Work’s works (heh!) have been forgotten, and that’s at least partly due to the fact that he wrote so many of them in so-called “slave dialect,” a peculiar American pop-culture phenomenon that has rightly been consigned to the trash bins of history along with minstrelry and Uncle Remus. (But don’t judge Work too harshly on that basis; he was a devout abolitionist, and his family actually sheltered runaway slaves bound for Canada in their Connecticut home.)
Inspired by a story he was told about a clock in the George Hotel in Britain, Work wrote the first lyric and chorus of “My Grandfather’s Clock” — that much is uncontested. But according to the black performer Sam Lucas, who made the song famous on the vaudeville stage and whose photograph appeared on the first printing of the song’s sheet music, it was actually Lucas who wrote the rest of the song, including its famous earworm melody. While Lucas was the first to admit he benefited from his association with the song, Work went on to make what would be millions of dollars in today’s currency from the song’s royalties, not a dime of which reached Lucas’ palm.
That’s a sad story. But it’s not sad enough to stain the memory of being wafted away to a guileless child’s dreams by the voice of your beloved grandmother, as she ticked, tocked, ticked, tocked in a timeless moment.
Craven Lovelace is the producer of the Notes Blog & Podcast at http://cravenlovelace.com/notesblog. He also writes about popular culture at the Cravenomena blog: http://cravenlovelace.com/cravenblog. You may find him on Facebook as well.
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