Living History & Reenactment Music

Musical Rambles Through History © by Sara L. Johnson

The Ship That Never Returned...
and The Henry C. Work Song That Did

During the American Civil War Henry Clay Work (1832-1884) wrote one of the songs most hated in the South, "Marching Through Georgia". Among his other Civil War songs were "Year of Jubilo" and "Grafted into the Army". One of Work's peacetime songs, "Grandfather's Clock", is still sung.

Over 25 years before the Titanic left port and never returned, Henry Clay Work wrote his last big song. "The Ship That Never Returned". It was remembered for decades. There was something about the tune and that chorus: "Did she ever return? She never returned. Her fate, it is still unlearned...."

The tune was resurrected in the 1920's and adapted for new lyrics in Vernon Dalhart's recording "The Wreck of the Old 97". That song was the first country music "hit", and the subject of the first big copyright lawsuit over a recording. On September 27, 1903, Old 97, with engineer "Steve" Broadie at the throttle made her last run and her first and last flight near Danville, Virginia. Vernon Dalhart recorded "The Wreck of the Old 97" for the Victor Talking Machine Company in 1924. The train wreck song remains a Bluegrass music standard.

As for Old 97's engineer, Steve Broadie: "They found him in the wreck with his hand on the throttle; he was scalded to death by the steam." And the last verse retained Henry Work's "never return": "...never speak harsh words to your true lovin' husband; He may leave you and never return."

In the 1950's "The Ship That Never Returned" returned again as another train song. This time it was a Boston Metropolitan Transit Authority subway train in the Kingston Trio's 1959 hit "The MTA Song"; and it was the passenger, Charlie, that never returned. "..When he got there the conductor told him 'one more nickel'; Charlie couldn't get off of that train." The chorus echoes Henry Work's original chorus with a change from the high seas to the subterranean rails: "..He may ride forever 'neath the streets of Boston; He's the man that never returned."

Henry C. Work's ship, engineer Steve Broadie on the Old 97, and poor Charlie on the MTA never returned. But Henry C. Work's song has returned twice - in a big way.

The melody and first verse of "The Ship That Never Returned" are on the music pages.