Biography:Henry Worrall

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Henry Worrall

 Given name:     Henry
 Middle name:     
 Family name:     Worrall
 Place of birth:     Liverpool, England
 Place of death:     Topeka, Kansas
 Year of birth:     1825
 Year of death:     1902
 Profile:     Composer, Musician
 Source of information:

Biographical notes

This biography appears on the Kansas Historical Society's Henry Worrall Collection site [1] along with a detailed description of the catalogue contents.

Henry Worrall’s career as an artist and illustrator of western scenes is well known. Historian Robert Taft, in particular, has documented Worrall’s life as a visual artist and examined his better known artistic works [see" The Pictorial Record of the Old West. III. Henry Worrall," Kansas Historical Quarterly, August, 1946 (vol. 14 no. 3), pages 241-263]. Worrall’s career as a musician and composer has received less attention.

Henry Worrall was born in Liverpool, England, on April 14, 1825. Little is known of his childhood and adolescence except that he moved to the United States with some members of his family in 1835. He is reported to have lived as a youth in Buffalo, New York, before settling in Cincinnati, Ohio, where he apprenticed to a glasscutter.

While in Cincinnati, Worrall achieved considerable proficiency on the guitar and began composing popular music for that instrument. For a time, he worked as a music and guitar instructor at a local college, probably the Ohio Female College in Pleasant Hill near Cincinnati, where he acquired the appellation “Professor.” Worrall and one of his students, Mary Elizabeth Harvey, frequently played guitar duets at public performances and would eventually marry.

During his residence in Ohio, Worrall published his most celebrated compositions and arrangements for solo guitar. His “Violet Waltz” appeared as early as 1853 through publisher W.C. Peters & Sons of Cincinnati. Worrall’s Guitar School, or The Eclectic Guitar Instructor, appeared in 1856 through the same publisher, with additional printings in 1862 by A.C. & J.L. Peters of Cincinnati and 1884 by the Oliver Ditson Company of Boston.

Worrall’s most celebrated piece for solo guitar, “Sebastopol,” appeared as early as 1856 to commemorate the siege of Sebastopol [now Sevastopol], Russia, in 1855 by the British and French during the Crimean War (1853-1856). He intended the piece, a military march, to imitate a military bugle and band, and sold it to W.C. Peters & Sons for a small sum. “Sebastopol” became one of the most popular pieces for solo guitar in nineteenth century America, was scored for many instruments, including piano, banjo, and brass band, and reportedly made a fortune for the publisher. Worrall gained additional fame for an arrangement of the popular “Spanish Fandango” which appeared as early as 1866.

In 1868, Henry and his family moved to the fledgling western community of Topeka, Kansas, which state only recently organized in 1861. Concerns about his health may have prompted the move West. Here he quickly became noted as an artist, illustrator, and decorator (see Robert Taft’s article cited above for more information on this aspect of Worrall’s career).

While Worrall may have focused more of his attention on illustration after moving West, extant sources also reveal a very active musical life in Kansas. Newspaper accounts of Worrall’s music performances appeared frequently in local papers. Photographs taken during his residence in Kansas show him posing with his guitar and playing music with his wife and others, including Joseph Tosso the celebrated violinist. Worrall likely accepted students for musical instruction. Further, by 1884, Worrall had acquired copyright to Worrall’s Guitar School, his popular instructor, prior to its republication by the Oliver Ditson Company. Similarly, in 1896, E.B. Guild, music publisher of Topeka, issued “Carmencita. Series of Mexican Dances Guitar Solo” by Henry Worrall.

In 1901, Henry Worrall suffered a stroke from which he only partially recovered. On June 20, 1902, Worrall died at his home in Topeka, leaving a wife, Mary Elizabeth Harvey Worrall, and three children, Harvey Worrall, Charles Worrall, and Mamie Worrall. He was 75 years old.

The success of Worrall’s music did not stop with his death. Interest in the refined parlor music of the nineteenth century waned considerably with the introduction of Ragtime (1890s) and Jazz (1920s). In areas of the rural South, however, white and black musicians continued to play the parlor music and adapt it to their own regional styles. Particularly after the widespread popularity of the steel string guitar by the 1920s, southern musicians borrowed tunings, picking styles, and chord changes from the parlor pieces for use in the development of nascent country and blues music.

While Henry Worrall was not the only parlor guitarist to influence southern rural musicians in the early twentieth century, he was arguably the most influential. His importance derives largely from the simple and popular character of his compositions and arrangements, and his near exclusive use of open tunings. Worrall favored tuning the guitar to an open chord, such as D A D F# A D (D Major) and D G D G B D (G Major), rather than the accepted standard tuning E A D G B E, already in common use. Among blues guitarists of the 1920s, the titles of Worrall’s most popular tunes became synonymous with favored open tunings, “Vastopol” (Sebastopol) for D Major and “Spanish” (Spanish Fandango) for G Major.

By the 1960s, a renewed interest in early country and blues music led to discoveries of forgotten songs and performers. Solo fingerstyle guitarists Mississippi John Hurt and Sam McGee became popular icons of the folk music revival and profoundly influenced a new generation of musicians. Both Hurt and McGee continued to play versions of Henry Worrall’s guitar instrumentals in their live and recorded performances, prompting new interest in Worrall’s music. Present interest in Worrall’s music is largely confined to performers, teachers, students, and aficionados of fingerstyle guitar and American roots music, and historians of country and blues musical idioms.