It’s been said that the popularity of a song can turn folklore into “fact”. Maybe that’s true about the old song “My Grandfather’s Clock”. Or maybe the song does tell a true story? Who can be sure. Either way, that old tune was how the grandfather clock got its name.
The “myth”began in 1875 at the George Hotel in the Piercebridge area of North Yorkshire, England. The hotel was a 16th century riverside inn, charming place where weary travelers stopped for rest and a steaming bowl of pea soup and mutton pie. The hotel had been previously owned and managed by the Jenkins brothers, both bachelors, who had both passed away. One day, an American songwriter, Henry Clay Work was visiting England and stayed at the hotel. Noticing in a corner of the lobby a large floor clock, or long case clock, as they were called back then, with a pendulum that wasn’t swinging, he became curious. His artistic sensibilities must have been at work and so he asked the proprietor about the clock’s history.
Work listened closely as the story unfolded. It went like this: The clock had always kept accurate time until one of the Jenkins brothers passed away. It wasn’t long before the clock started losing time, first by a minute or so every few days, then by a minute every day, then by several minutes every day. Local clock smiths labored in vain; no matter what they tried the clock refused to keep accurate time.
Then, one day when the surviving Jenkins brother passed away in his ninetieth year, the fully wound clock abruptly stopped. As the story goes, the moment the clock stopped was 11:05, the exact same time the older brother died. The new owner of the George Hotel tried having the clock repaired but all attempts failed. And so to this day, the clock stands in the corner of the lobby, having become a landmark of its own, dusted and polished, but still without a tick or a tock.
That unusual story inspired Work to write a song based on it. He dedicated the song to his sister, Lizzie and named the piece “My Grandfather’s Clock”. The lyrics told of a clock that was “taller by half than the old man himself” and that “stopped short – never to go again when the grandfather died.”
The song was published in America in 1876 and what a big hit it was, selling over a million copies in sheet music. It’s melody and lyrics penetrated the hearts and minds of people everywhere and eventually the term “grandfather clock” became synonymous with this style of clock that inspired the song. It was Work’s best-known song, and has been recorded by such diverse artists such as Johnny Cash, Gene Krupa, Lawrence Welk, folk singer Burl Ives and R&B vocal group Boyz II Men.
Henry Clay Work’s song just keeps on ticking.
We found this excellent video with the song performed by Tom Rouch from his new album. Historic photos and graphics as well as the actual sheet music follow the song from from beginning to end. Have a look!
I’m guessing that this article may have kindled your interest in grandfather clocks. If so, check our fine selection of Hermle Grandfather Clocks.
Photo #1 – hotels.uk.com
Photo #2 – traditionalmusic.co.uk
Photo #3 – creativecommons.org