Traditions begin, end, revive and evolve.
Jim Nabors’ singing of “(Back Home Again in) Indiana” has become a signature moment at the Indianapolis 500. Moments before the command for the drivers to “start your engines,” Nabors belts out the song in a strong, baritone voice.
The pairing of Nabors and that duty seems improbable. After all, the actor was born in Alabama, lives in Hawaii, has never resided in Indiana, and is best known as the 1960s TV character Gomer Pyle. Then, on the morning of the 1972 race, Indianapolis Motor Speedway owner Tony Hulman asked Nabors to sing that day, Nabors said in a 2007 interview with The Associated Press. He thought Hulman wanted him to sing the national anthem, until the director of the accompanying Purdue University marching band clued him in. Nabors quickly jotted the lyrics of “Indiana” on his hand, and sang it.
Great story. Great tradition. For all but seven of the last 40 Indianapolis 500s, Nabors has sung “Indiana.”
The 40th anniversary of his Indy debut would be an ideal moment for the Speedway to mark the milestone and begin a transition to a new tradition.
It’s time to give the state song a prominent place in Indiana’s most legendary sporting event.
Some people, including many Hoosiers, assume that’s exactly what already happens every Memorial Day weekend when Nabors begins crooning. But “(Back Home Again in) Indiana” is not the state song. It just sounds like the real one. “Indiana” is almost entirely a ripoff of Paul Dresser’s “On the Banks of the Wabash (Far Away),” which the Indiana Legislature adopted as the state song in 1913.
The men who crafted “Indiana” in 1917 received permission from the publishers of “On the Banks of the Wabash” to borrow two bars of the original, written 20 years earlier by Dresser, who died in 1906. Instead, “Indiana” co-writers James Hanley and Ballard MacDonald liberally lifted the lyrics, melody and chorus from “On the Banks of the Wabash” to mold their song. The infringement went unnoticed until Dresser’s brother, Theodore Dreiser, heard “Indiana” in the 1940 movie “Remember the Night.” Dreiser started a legal challenge over the copying, but gave up.
In 1946, the knock-off tune permanently elbowed its way past “On the Banks” when Hulman asked New York Metropolitan Opera singer and race enthusiast James Melton to sing “Indiana” before the 500. Hulman was rebuilding and revising the Speedway and its traditions, after the track went dormant during World War II. Melton’s performance received good reviews, track historian Donald Davidson said in that 2007 AP story, and the song earned an annual niche in the race-day routine. Since then, 24 different singers have performed it, including several who (like Nabors) became familiar television faces: Ed Ames (Mingo on “Daniel Boone”), Vic Damone (host of “The Lively Ones”), Dinah Shore (host of “The Dinah Shore Show”) and Peter Marshall (host of “Hollywood Squares”).
Nabors has missed his assignment only twice since 1987, once because of a Sunday rainout and the other due to a hospital stint. He’s currently scheduled to sing “Indiana” again at the 96th running of the 500 next month, said Speedway public relations director Doug Boles.
Meanwhile, the state song, “On the Banks,” will be performed by the Purdue band around 10:15 a.m., long before the full TV audience tunes in.
“Indiana” gets the marquee moment, just before the engines begin to roar. With more than 300,000 fans watching in person, and millions of others viewing on network TV, most people figure Nabors is singing the state song. Inadvertently, the Indy 500 has obscured “On the Banks of the Wabash” in favor of an imitation.
This year, the real thing should be moved up in the lineup. Just before Nabors pipes up with “Indiana,” the 500 organizers should enlist a Hoosier singer to deliver at least a verse and chorus of the largely forgotten “On the Banks.” John Mellencamp would be an excellent choice, or maybe Lafayette’s Jeremy Camp or Indy native Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds.
Its inclusion might stir a little controversy, grab some headlines (Indy racing can always use those in the NASCAR era), and reacquaint the world with a beautiful song Dresser wrote about family, love and the Hoosier countryside. It also reaffirms an Indy 500 connection with Terre Haute, which is the hometown of both Tony Hulman and Dresser, and the setting of “On the Banks.”
Nabors will turn 82 a few days after this year’s race. By sharing the limelight with an “On the Banks of the Wabash” singer, Nabors could prepare 500 fans for a time when the state song would begin a new tradition as the pre-race standard, replacing “(Back Home Again in) Indiana” when Nabors chooses to retire.
At another historic sporting extravaganza next month, the Kentucky state song will choke up even the crustiest horse racing insiders. As the horses are being led onto the track at Churchill Downs just before the start of the Kentucky Derby, the University of Louisville marching band plays “My Old Kentucky Home,” the state song. Now, there are other great songs about the Bluegrass state, including “Kentucky Woman” by Neil Diamond, the country standard “Kentucky” by the Louvin Brothers, “Kentucky Rain” by Elvis, and “Blue Moon of Kentucky” by Bill Monroe.
But the Derby uses its state song — dated and politically incorrect as it is — written by Stephen Foster, who died in 1864.
Indiana has a dandy, too, and the 500 could remind us all of that.
Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or firstname.lastname@example.org.