A century ago Thursday, the musical work of a Terre Haute native was recognized as Indiana’s first official emblem — the state song.
The Indiana House of Representatives and later the Indiana Senate on Thursday at the Statehouse passed resolutions honoring Paul Dresser for his song, “On the Banks of the Wabash, Far Away.”
“This is an immense day in Indiana’s history as we recognize the centennial anniversary of our state song,” said state Rep. Bob Heaton, R-Terre Haute, told the House.
“Our state song symbolizes more than just world-renowned music, it is intertwined in the very fabric of our Hoosier heritage,” Heaton said.
Nine Terre Haute residents representing groups including Art Spaces Inc.-Wabash Valley’s Outdoor Sculpture Collection, the Cultural Trail, the Vigo County Historical Society and the Swope Museum stood in front of the Indiana House along with Heaton and Rep. Clyde Kersey, D-Terre Haute, co-authors of a House resolution, along with Randy Truitt, R-West Lafayette.
Sen. Tim Skinner, D-Terre Haute, spearheaded a similar resolution in the Senate.
“The state song was the first official symbol of Indiana. It was adopted four years before the state flag was adopted,” Kersey told the House.
But Kersey, a former public school teacher, said he wanted to make clear a song annually heard at the Indianapolis 500, while connected to Dresser, is not the state song.
In 1917, Maurice Richmond Music purchased the copyright from Dresser’s bankrupt company, Haviland and Dresser Co. Maurice Richmond gave Ballard MacDonald and James Hanley permission to use parts of Dresser’s “On the Banks of the Wabash, Far Away” in their new song, “Back Home again in Indiana.”
“That song has kind of taken the place of Dresser’s song as it is sung at the Indianapolis 500. But Dresser’s song is still the official state song,” Kersey said before the House session.
The state song was composed in 1897. “The song was published and later became the second, best-selling song in the 19th century,” Heaton said. The House resolution states that a record 1,471 copies of the song were sold at one department store in a single day.
Born Johann Paul Dreiser Jr. in Terre Haute on April 22, 1858, he spent his youth near the Wabash River. “He left home at 16, changed his named to Dresser and became a traveling musician, comedian and actor,” Kersey said. “Eventually, he wound up in New York City where he became a songwriter and composer.”
His younger brother, Theodore Dreiser, also from Terre Haute, became a famous author.
“Our legislators of 100 years ago certainly had great foresight in choosing this song — not only because of the beauty of its music and its touching lyrics, which offer a tribute to our state — but because it recognizes one of our state’s most timeless treasurers, the Wabash River,” said Mary Kramer, executive director of Art Spaces Inc.-Wabash Valley Outdoor Sculpture Collection, as she addressed the Indiana House.
“This vital natural resource flows undisturbed for nearly 500 miles, through 18 of Indiana counties. Combined with its many tributaries, it touches the lives of a majority of Hoosiers. The Wabash is Indiana’s state river.”
Kramer said the resolution is part of Terre Haute’s 2013 Year of the River and provides an important step in a process to create a sculpture to honor both Paul Dresser and Indiana’s state song, she told the Indiana House.
The sculpture would be the second along the Cultural Trail. The first sculpture was of world-renowned poet Max Erhmann, dedicated in August 2010.
“Most people have forgotten that [Dresser] was one of the most important song writers of his time. He was so important, in fact, that when he died [in 1906] a major New York newspaper called him ‘the greatest of American popular song writers.’” The sculpture will provide a reminder, Kramer said.
Art Spaces now has 13 sculptures put in place over the past six years.
Kramer told the Indiana House that a fundraiser for a Dresser sculpture will be held June 6, featuring a performance by Tedi Dreiser Godard, the grandniece of Dresser and Dreiser.
Thursday was the not the first time since 1913 that state legislators have honored Dresser.
In 1967, the Indiana General Assembly designated Dresser’s relocated home in Fairbanks Park in Terre Haute as a state memorial site. The National Music Council lists his home as “a landmark of American music.”
Reporter Howard Greninger can be reached at 812-231-4204 or firstname.lastname@example.org.