Paul Dresser, a prominent 19th-Century song and music composer grew up near the city of Terre Haute, Indiana. His family's home and farm was on land adjacent to the Wabash River, the primary internal waterway in the state of Indiana. Dresser later moved to New York City where he composed much of his music with Howley, Haviland & Co., a Tin Pan Alley music firm. He often returned to his home to visit. Being away from his family caused him to reminisce often, and in the spring of 1897 he began to write the song "On the Bank of the Wabash, Far Away" in remembrance of his Indiana home, and completed it in the summer of that year. He published his song in fall as part of a series of songs entitled Mother-and-Home. When asked what inspired him to write the song he once said,
"The same sweet memory that inspired that other Hoosier, James Whitcomb Riley, to sing of the 'Old Swimmin' Hole'" [inspired me to write the song]. "I was born on the banks of the Wabash at Terre Haute. . . . My fondest recollections are of my mother and of my early days along this stream."
The song was an immediate success and became nationally popular. It was sung by various singers and recorded on wax phonograph cylinders by Edison Records to be sold to the public. One Chicago department store claimed to have sold 1,471 records of the song in a single day. An Indiana newspaper compared the song in popularity to "Suwannee River" and wrote of the song, "Mr. Dresser . . . has endeavored to perpetuate the beauties of the Wabash as did Stephen Foster that of the Suwanee River, and certainly no song since the latter has awakened so much interest among lovers of a good song, nor has any other American author seemed as capable of filling the void left vacant by Foster. The song is a gem and a welcome relief from some of the so-called popular songs sprung on the public from time to time." In its first year, over 500,000 copies of sheet music was sold for the song. The song soon sold over one million records, becoming the second best selling record until that time, in terms of sheet music sold. Dresser earned a substantial income from the song, predominantly from royalties through the sale of sheet music; copyright laws at the time did not allow for Dresser to control the distribution of phonograph cylinders. The song continued to be popular until the 1920s and was sung by quartets and numerous other individuals and groups. The song title was used as the name of a 1923 film directed by J. Stuart Blackton, and the song was later featured prominently in the 1942 film, My Gal Sal, the title of another song by Dresser.
The year that the song was first published, Paul Dresser's famous novelist brother, Theodore, privately claimed to have authored the words to the song. After Paul's death, Theodore made his claim public. It was a controversial statement, and Theodore was publicly ridiculed in many papers and by prominent Hoosiers who dismissed his claim. However, he never retracted his claim that he wrote the first verse and chorus of the song, although he downplayed its importance in later years. It is possible that Theodore did give his brother the idea for the song, and may have even authored a portion of it as parts of the song's content reflect his writing style.
widely known 1917 song "Back Home Again in Indiana" borrows
heavily from "On the Banks of the Wabash, Far Away" in the
chorus, both musically and lyrically. Dresser's estate accused the
writer of plagiarism and threatened to bring a suit against the
publisher, Paull-Pioneer Music Corporation. Despite lengthy
discussions no action was ever taken to resolve the dispute, largely
due to the ambiguous nature of United States copyright laws in the
The song speaks of the Wabash River, which flows through Indiana, and reminisces about events that occurred there. The song has two verses and a chorus. The first verse is about a boy's childhood on a farm his love for his mother, and the second verse is about his lost love, Mary.
Round my Indiana homesteads wave the cornfields,
In the distance loom the woodlands clear and cool.
Oftentimes my thoughts revert to scenes of childhood,
Where I first received my lessons, nature's school.
But one thing there is missing from the picture,
Without her face it seems so incomplete.
I long to see my mother in the doorway,
As she stood there years ago, her boy to greet.
Oh, the moonlight's fair tonight along the Wabash,
From the fields there comes the breath of newmown hay.
Through the sycamores the candle lights are gleaming,
On the banks of the Wabash, far away.
Many years have passed since I strolled by the river,
Arm in arm, with sweetheart Mary by my side,
It was there I tried to tell her that I loved her,
It was there I begged of her to be my bride.
Long years have passed since I strolled thro' there churchyard.
She's sleeping there, my angel, Mary dear,
I loved her, but she thought I didn't mean it,
"On the Banks of the Wabash, Far Away" was adopted as the official state song by the Indiana General Assembly and signed into law by Governor Winfield T. Durbin, who was one of the primary backers of the legislation, on March 14, 1913. Its lyrics and required uses were added to the Indiana Code. After the passage of the law, the song was sung by a joint session of both houses of the state legislature. It was the first state symbol of Indiana, adopted four years before the first state flag. In 1925, legislation was passed that required Indiana schools to teach the song to their students, and twenty-thousand copies of the song were distributed to the state's public schools. It is often played at government ceremonial events including the Governor's inauguration.
Although the song was official in the state, the song "Back Home Again in Indiana" became more widely used in the state, and is falsely believed by many to be the official state song. One of the important events that led to the state song to fall into obscurity was that, beginning in 1946, "Indiana" began to be sung just before the start of the Indianapolis 500, Indiana's most prominent annual event. "Wabash" is played at the event as the race cars move into their starting positions, a period that receives little television coverage. The public's gradual change to singing "Indiana" continued in the following years, and it came to be played in the place of "Wabash" at state college football games and other prominent events.
Following the centennial anniversary of the writing of the song, the Indiana General Assembly, in the 1998 session, passed a resolution reconfirming Dresser's song as the state's official song and urged state institutions to make more use of it, and return it to popularity.
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