TERRE HAUTE —
Paul Dresser left Terre Haute a niche in history.
Opportunism, squabbling and fading memories gradually washed that gift away, like the unending flow of the Wabash River he immortalized in song.
A proposed sculpture in remembrance of the man who wrote “On the Banks of the Wabash (Far Away)” could revive that lost niche. Last month, Wabash Valley Art Spaces announced its intention to begin fundraising this year for an outdoor sculpture commemorating Dresser, whose signature work became the Indiana state song. The Dresser artwork would become the second leg of Art Spaces’ Cultural Trail project, aimed at preserving the memory of Terre Haute’s internationally known figures through sculpture. The trail debuted in 2010 with a downtown statue and plaza recognizing “Desiderata” poet Max Ehrmann.
More than a century after Dresser died, timing finally may be on his side.
Art Spaces plans to select a sculptor (based on submitted ideas) and begin work on a site next year. The year 2013 holds significance. Local arts organizations are planning a 12-month “Year of the River” celebration to raise the community’s awareness of the Wabash, and hope to place it within the riverside Fairbanks Park. The year 2013 will also mark the 100th anniversary of “On the Banks of the Wabash” becoming Indiana’s official state song.
That action by the Indiana Legislature in 1913 etched Dresser’s nostalgic song into law, but not permanently into the minds of Hoosiers.
His drift into obscurity began with his early death in 1906 at 48 years old, just nine years after he wrote “On the Banks of the Wabash.” Eventually, two developments caused Dresser and his personal masterpiece to be largely forgotten. In 1917, the company holding the “On the Banks of the Wabash” copyright allowed two other composers — James Hanley and Ballard MacDonald — to shamelessly borrow Dresser’s lyrics and tune to craft the strikingly similar “(Back Home Again in) Indiana.” Sung for decades at the Indianapolis 500 by actor Jim Nabors, “Indiana” is now more widely known and mistakenly assumed to be the state song.
On top of that, multiple efforts by Dresser’s hometown to celebrate his musical accomplishments with an archway straddling the U.S. 40 bridge over the Wabash, a 40-mile beltway around Terre Haute, and a park never came to fruition. Those memorial attempts failed partly because of meddling by Dresser’s famous younger brother, author Theodore Dreiser, said Dresser biographer Clayton Henderson.
Dreiser’s relentless interference with groups such as the Paul Dresser Memorial Association “made the city fathers of Terre Haute just throw up their hands and say, ‘Enough,’” said Henderson, a retired professor of music at St. Mary’s College in South Bend, whose 2003 book “On the Banks of the Wabash: The Life and Music of Paul Dresser” is a definitive biography of Dresser’s colorful, flawed, troubled, and rags-to-riches-to-rags life. Though Dreiser seemed sincere about creating a lasting tribute to Paul, his demands (issued long-distance, often from New York City) and suspiciousness of the local volunteers exasperated the participants.
Thus, public recognition of Dresser — America’s premier songwriter of the 1890s — is indistinct. His boyhood home sits on an unassuming corner of Fairbanks Park. The twin Wabash River bridges are named for Dresser (westbound) and Dreiser (eastbound). Paul Dresser Drive, originally envisioned as a scenic belt around Terre Haute, is a one-mile road through the park and is also known as Girl Scout Lane. Likewise, the west-bank village of Dresser is often called Taylorville.
The new sculpture would raise Terre Hauteans’ understanding of Dresser’s impact on the city, said Richard Dowell, a retired Indiana State University professor and former editor of the Dreiser Newsletter.
“I think a [sculpture] reminding them that Dresser did write the state song would be very fitting,” Dowell said.
The possibilities considered by Art Spaces include locating the artwork near the small, two-story, brick Dresser home in which Paul was born in 1858, the fourth of 13 Dreiser children. (He changed his last name to enter show business at age 16). The house was moved from Second Street in the 1960s to spare it from demolition. It earned a spot on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973, two years after Dresser was posthumously inducted by legendary composer Johnny Mercer into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
The creation of the Max Ehrmann bronze statue, seated on a park bench, and the surrounding plaza enhanced the look of the northwest corner of Seventh and Wabash, said Mary Kramer, executive director of Art Spaces. The Dresser portion of the Cultural Trail carries the same potential.
“People have learned how sculpture could change a site,” Kramer said, “and doing something on Paul Dresser could have a similar impact on a location.”
The largest obstacle in reacquainting Hoosiers to Dresser, though, is the pervasive use of “(Back Home Again in) Indiana.”
Not only has “Indiana” become an Indy 500 tradition, but college bands regularly play the sound-alike at football and basketball games at in-state universities. Many Hoosiers, including Terre Hauteans, think Nabors and the college bands are playing the state song.
“I have given talks where somebody will say, ‘Hey, I can play ‘(Back Home Again in) Indiana,’” said Terre Haute historian Mike McCormick. “And I’ll say, ‘Well, good. When you get to where you can play “On the Banks of the Wabash,” call me.’ It’s bothersome.”
The encroachment by Hanley and MacDonald onto Dresser’s song is vast. The original’s melody and lyrics were merely tweaked in “Indiana.” As Henderson pointed out in his book, Dresser’s line “Oh, the moonlight’s fair tonight along the Wabash,” led to “When I dream about the moonlight on the Wabash” in “Indiana.” Likewise, Dresser wrote “Through the sycamores the candle lights are gleaming,” and Hanley and MacDonald came up with “The gleaming candlelight still shining bright, through the Sycamores …” And, after Dresser crafted “From the fields there comes the breath of new-mown hay,” Hanley and MacDonald morphed it into “The new-mown hay sends all its fragrance.”
Dreiser, executor of Paul’s estate, knew nothing of the knock-off until 1942, when he heard “Indiana” in the soundtrack of a Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck movie. Dreiser challenged the publishing company of Hanley and MacDonald, but his effort failed after the firm explained that Dresser’s publisher had granted them permission to use two bars of “On the Banks.”
“The whole song is really Paul’s song in new clothing,” Henderson explained. “It hugs the contours of Dresser’s [song] so much.”
Dreiser further blurred the legend of the state song by claiming, decades later, to have written the lyrics to the first stanza and chorus for his brother. Throughout his prolific career, Dresser was one of few 19th-century songwriters to handle both music and lyrics, which makes Dreiser’s claim odd. Dresser’s own public descriptions of his creation of the wildly popular “On the Banks of the Wabash” made no mention of Theodore’s participation. Strictly an author, Dreiser’s novels are written in a complex style, starkly contrast to the song’s graceful romanticism.
“[Theodore] was so pro-Paul in many ways, and yet he had to sneak this in to confuse everybody,” McCormick said of Dreiser.
If jealousy, insecurity or opportunity led Dreiser to make a false assertion, historians are basically forced to believe either words left by Dresser or Dreiser.
“My gut tells me that Dresser wrote the whole thing,” Henderson said.
Beneath the controversies and a century’s worth of dust remains Paul Dresser’s landmark song, penned in 1897. Its longing for home and mother seem dated, Henderson said. Still, “it’s a wonderful gem for when it was written,” he added.
A sculpture would be “lovely to honor Paul Dresser,” Henderson said, “and it’s overdue.”
Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Related video by Sheila K. Ter Meer at specials.tribstar.com/bowimovie/bow.mov