News From Terre Haute, Indiana

March 17, 2013

MARK BENNETT: A century later, ‘On the Banks of the Wabash’ still rises above Indiana politics

Mark Bennett
The Tribune-Star

INDIANAPOLIS — Music and politics share one commonality — people who like a style different from yours are nuts.

The Indiana Legislature performed a miracle a century ago. Those lawmakers agreed upon a state song, “On the Banks of the Wabash (Far Away),” by Terre Haute native Paul Dresser, on March 14, 1913.

Think about that. Politicians chose one piece of music to forever represent their homeland.

It wasn’t easy back then, but reaching such consensus would be impossible today. No matter the genre of the state song candidates — classical, rock, country, rhythm and blues, folk, rap, hip-hop, blues, bluegrass, techno, Americana, alt-rock, alt-country, alt-alt — sparks would fly. Lyrics would be analyzed, word for word. Fringe special-interest groups would express outrage over a link between the composer and a subversive element, like an old photo with the president or an “I Love Lucy” Fan Club membership. Attack ads would be created. Robo calls would be issued. Pundits would be brutal. CDs would be smashed.

And all of that would happen before lawmakers could even cast a vote.

The state would teeter on the Melodic Cliff.

That reality shows the true genius of Dresser’s work. The tune of “On the Banks of the Wabash” would fit in Paul McCartney’s songbook. The youthful nostalgia of the lyrics would please Bruce Springsteen, if he’d grown up in the Midwest in the 1860s instead of New Jersey in the 1960s. Just weeks before members of the 1913 General Assembly acted to adopt the state song, the Indianapolis Star called it “Dresser’s masterpiece.”

Those legislators’ political descendants did something truly classy last week. To mark the centennial of the state song’s enactment, the state House and Senate passed resolutions honoring Dresser for the gem he wrote in 1897. Terre Haute representatives Bob Heaton (a Republican) and Clyde Kersey (a Democrat) recited the history behind Dresser and the song, and Tim Skinner did the same in the Senate. The local trio reminded their colleagues that “On the Banks of the Wabash” is the state song, and not “(Back Home Again in) Indiana” — a now-more-popular knockoff of Dresser’s original song.

Nine out of 10 Hoosiers, including many right here in Terre Haute, presume that “Back Home Again” is the state song for one reason. (Before last Thursday’s resolution was read, a few House members confessed they didn’t know the true state song.)

“They think it’s what Jim Nabors sings at the 500,” Heaton said of the general public. The “Gomer Pyle” actor has sung it year after year since the 1970s, cementing the misconception. The folks at the Speedway would make a historic, fitting gesture by having another singer perform a chorus of “On the Banks” right before Nabors belts out “Back Home Again,” especially on the 100th anniversary of the state song’s adoption.

Some people would gripe, but complaints happened in 1913, too.

The state song bill was authored by George Curtis, a senator from Posey County, located at the southernmost tip of the Wabash River. Curtis was an Indiana University grad and a Democrat. (Half of those reading now oppose his idea, albeit a century later.) Known as a brilliant orator, Curtis quickly climbed the political ladder to become Senate president pro tempore after just two years in the Legislature, and was just 35 years old in 1913. (Some folks may be drawing unflattering comparisons with a modern-day office holder.)

Curtis told the Star his inspiration for the state song bill came from an incident involving a fellow Posey Countian, Charles Greathouse. In 1900, Greathouse was on the brink of losing the nomination for state superintendent of public instruction, when a band at a political event he was attending struck up a rendition of “On the Banks of the Wabash.” For some unexplained reason, Greathouse’s fortunes suddenly turned and he won the nomination.

Thirteen years later, Curtis was the young, top man in the Senate and wanted Indiana to make “On the Banks” its state song.

That doesn’t seem like a hard sell in 1913. Granted, Dresser had died seven years earlier, and his greatest song’s million-seller heyday happened more than a decade past, but average Hoosiers still knew the tune by heart. Nonetheless, Curtis’ state song push wasn’t universally praised. The same Indianapolis Star column that called “On the Banks” a masterpiece also reprinted the song’s chorus and added the following jab to the senator:

“When some horny-handed archaeologist from Saturn comes across the above lines in the ruins of the Indiana Capitol a few centuries from now, he will adjust his brass-rimmed spectacles, clear his throat with a deep, rasping sound and write a sixteen-volume thesis on the strange laws enacted in the year of our Lord, 1913.”

Cable TV talking heads would be proud of that diatribe, unearthed last week by kind researchers at the Indiana Historical Society in Indianapolis.

The Rushville Daily Republican suggested the song be renamed, “On the Banks of the Flatrock,” referring to the waterway near that small Hoosier town.

When the Senate finally acted on Curtis’ proposal, it was unanimously approved. Curtis and a colleague had promised to sing the song, but another lawmaker talked them out of it, saying their good reputations might suffer, according to a 1913 Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette story. The House passed Curtis’ bill, too, but less resoundingly, 62-6. Four opponents hailed from cities near rival rivers (if there are such things) — Rockport, Warsaw, Cambridge City and Milton. One lived near the Wabash in Bunker Hill (and must not have been impressed), and another called Kokomo home.

Unlike their Senate counterparts, the House reps broke into song, crooning the refrain of “On the Banks.”

It might be interesting to see that happen as a daily tradition in the Statehouse. A Legislature that sings together stays together …


On second thought, replaying a recording of Dresser’s song might be more realistic.

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or