News From Terre Haute, Indiana

History

November 11, 2012

Historical Treasure: ‘On the Banks of the Wabash’ proved to be a hit

TERRE HAUTE — Your song’s a hit when others claim credit or “borrow” from it. That’s what happened to Terre Haute’s Paul Dresser (1857-1906) and his famous “On the Banks of the Wabash.”

According to Paul’s novelist brother Theodore Dreiser, they met in Paul’s office in 1896. Paul, a successful actor, playwright, and composer, sought ideas for a song. Theodore suggested the Wabash River and wrote the first verse and chorus before handing it over to Paul and saying, “It’s yours.”

Terre Haute poet Max Ehrmann, author of the official Paul Dresser biography for the Paul Dresser Memorial Association, questioned Theodore’s version of events. Others maintained that Theodore’s store was questionable because he waited until after Paul’s death to claim authorship.

“On the Banks of the Wabash” wowed Tin Pan Alley, selling 500,000 copies its first year. References to his deceased mother in the first verse and to his beloved Mary in the second had great emotional appeal. The chorus conveyed his longing for his Indiana home. The song’s popularity prompted the Indiana Legislature to adopt it as the state song in 1913. It was also one of the first pieces of popular music ever recorded, and the Shannon Quartet’s 1928 Columbia recording on You Tube is a wonderful rendition.

Others couldn’t resist borrowing from Dresser’s famous song. Most notable is the 1917 Ballard Macdonald and James F. Hanley song, “Back Home Again in Indiana, “a jazzy version that uses so many words from Dresser’s song that many people confuse it with “On the Banks of the Wabash.

Be sure to see the sheet music for “On the Banks of the Wabash” and photos of the Dresser home being moved to its current Fairbanks Park location during the Vigo County Historical Society’s celebration of its 90th birthday.

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