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.
State song deserves a spot in the limelight at Indy 500
Traditions begin, end, revive and evolve.
- Mark Bennett Opinion
MARK BENNETT: ABA’s record proves Bobby Leonard’s a legit Hall of Famer
Bobby Leonard symbolized the feisty competitive flair of the old ABA.
MARK BENNETT: Letter from coach’s young daughter put pro sports, Christmas in perspective
Most of us sympathize with people forced to work on Thanksgiving and Christmas.
That list is growing, now that Black Friday has morphed into Black Thursday, causing retail employees to join doctors, nurses, hospital staffers, police, firefighters, emergency responders, military members, convenience store clerks, road crews and media to spend holidays at work. Ideally, we’ll feel gratitude when we require their services on those special days. Too often, their sacrificed time gets taken for granted.
Terry Leonard wanted the executives to remember her dad, and their family, at Christmastime.
And, amazingly, they listened.
MARK BENNETT: A degree of success
Determination to get that diploma Larry Bird’s deepest bond with fellow ISU alums, students
MARK BENNETT: Brad Fenton and friends set dominos in motion to make Larry Bird statue a reality
The idea has been out there for awhile, floating.
Locals in the 1980s, ’90s and 2000s would say, “They need to put up a statue of Larry Bird. I mean, one of the all-time greatest basketball players played right here in Terre Haute at Indiana State University.”
MARK BENNETT: Next chapter set to begin
Use the classic Tommy Tutone song to memorize the following number …
MARK BENNETT: One-ring blues?
Minutes before kickoff tonight, the Lucas Oil Stadium tech crew should play Sam Cooke’s classic, “(What a) Wonderful World” over the sound system.
MARK BENNETT: At Peace in Parke County
Northwestern Parke County — The stream merely trickles beneath Mill Creek Bridge. It’s just a few inches deep, but the water keeps moving.
MARK BENNETT: Terre Haute native Tommy John belongs in Cooperstown for pitching like a Hall of Famer
Few players in history left a greater impact on baseball than Tommy John.
And he did so through his performance on the field.
MARK BENNETT: Remotely confused
“Must See TV,” where have you gone?
MARK BENNETT: Popularity Contest: Congress does little to improve its standing with Americans
The members of Congress ardently resisting the Affordable Care Act emphasize its unpopularity.
MARK BENNETT: ‘The voice of the Democratic Party’
The ad stands as a campaign classic. Its scenario is part of history. Its narrator would be familiar to millions of Americans, yet anonymous, too.
MARK BENNETT: Transparency in public decision-making includes sincerely listening to the people
Transparency isn’t universally accepted in public entities.
MARK BENNETT: This Little Light: Remote chapel keeps a light shining on story of Flight 93
Father Al explained the meaning of the lamp. He asked me to light it.
The reverence in his voice offset the raspiness, left by his latest battle with cancer. Clearly, he saw this place as special.
MARK BENNETT: Reflections on the Wabash
The series “500 Miles of Wabash” wrapped up last Sunday after a five-week run. Readers offered some enlightening insights, memories and photographs as the series unfolded.
MARK BENNETT: Current Information: Put your Wabash knowledge to the test … or quiz
Just for fun, ponder a few questions concerning the large waterway flowing through Indiana and Terre Haute, as the Tribune-Star’s series, “500 Miles of Wabash” concludes in today’s editions. Those who’ve followed the five-part series of stories, photographs and videos about people and communities uniquely embracing the Wabash River may have a head start. If you’re just catching up, check them out in the online editions at www.tribstar.com.
- Answers to the Wabash River Quiz
MARK BENNETT: Pedestrian paths across the Wabash few, so far, but appreciated
The future tends to sneak up on you. Planning for it offers no guarantees, but it helps.
MARK BENNETT: Questions of fairness, impartiality, public trust legitimate in wake of school rating controversy
The discovery of a double-standard in public policy — or the appearance of it — weakens trust. The acceptance of a double-standard in public policy — or the appearance of it — erases trust. Indiana needs to draw a clear line between the former and the latter, and not cross it.
MARK BENNETT: Living downstream: From source, Wabash bears mark of mankind mile after mile
Something was missing. I’d never visited this spot before, but the view looked familiar. I’ve walked the banks of the Wabash River and its tributaries countless times, catching crawdads and skipping rocks in Honey Creek as a kid. On the other side of the state, where the Wabash crosses from Ohio into Indiana, trees arched over the water as it ran under a bridge on a quiet country road. It looked like western Indiana, except for one absent element. Litter.
MARK BENNETT: We are Hauteans (ho-shuns)
I fielded an hilariously disturbing question recently. A friend asked if the word “Hautean” is meant to be a derogatory label.
MARK BENNETT: Lesson in the Test
ISTEP is important, but it should not be predominant.
MARK BENNETT: Commencement Advice
Today’s high school commencement speakers should repeat their speeches in hospital delivery rooms in the months ahead.
MARK BENNETT: American nurses, medics, stranded behind Nazi lines, survived through tenacity, heroism, generosity
A story of survival, perseverance, danger, and extraordinary courage and generosity extended in the midst of war remained untold for decades, but thankfully not forever.
Mark Bennett: High-profile mural connects historical dots from city to river
At 96 feet wide and 2 stories tall, the power, impact and value of the Wabash will be evident.
MARK BENNETT: Life at face value: Mom’s simple advice still presents a valuable daily challenge
Most moms don’t base their advice on scientific research.
(Unless, of course, your mother is a scientific researcher. If so, carry a No. 2 pencil and take good notes.)
MARK BENNETT: Should I stay or should I go?
Some have their Bill Clinton-era Cavalier packed (with the trunk bungee-ed shut), apartment cleaned (except for the fridge), and iPhone GPS locked onto the fastest route out of Terre Haute. Others are staying — until they find a better job, or because they’re starting a career here, or because this town feels like home. In each case, a new stage of life begins today.
College Class of '13 gets a little extra advice
Local college grads will hear commencement speakers offer life and career advice this month. We’re offering them an extra dose here from folks who’ve found success in various vocations and regions of the nation. Many have Terre Haute roots.
MARK BENNETT: Spirited response to a rising river
The power within the Wabash revealed itself last week.
MARK BENNETT: Littered with irony: Why do people callously discard their trash, and who are they?
Though they aren’t acknowledged by the U.S. Census Bureau, there are basically two demographic groups of people … Those who would dump their old toilet on the banks of the Wabash River or a rural roadside. And those who wouldn’t.
MARK BENNETT: Performing under the radar: Toiling for years behind the scenes, Terre Haute native J.T. Corenflos finally earned a splash of musical recognition
People who diligently work to make others shine are a rare breed.
- More Mark Bennett Opinion Headlines
- MARK BENNETT: ABA’s record proves Bobby Leonard’s a legit Hall of Famer