Through the sycamores the candle lights are gleaming, On the banks of the Wabash, far away…” These lines from the chorus of Indiana ‘s official state song convey the sense of nostalgia for a long-gone rural domesticity that characterized Paul Dresser‘s best-loved songs.
Born in Terre Haute in 1859 to John and Sarah Dreiser; his brother was renowned novelist Theodore Dreiser. (Paul’s modifed surname was reportedly a result of a mix-up in the press.) After studying for the priesthood, young Paul enjoyed stints with a medicine show wagon in Indianapolis and a minstrel show in New York before becoming a sheet-music giant.
“On the Banks of the Wabash “ recalls a pastoral Indiana homestead and expresses yearnings for mother and a young bride, both gone to the grave. The origins of the mysterious song are not clear. Some claim it was penned at the West Baden Springs Hotel; some say at the offices of Dresser’s publishing company in New York. It is even speculated that Dresser’s brother, the novelist, wrote the first verse.
Another enigmatic aspect of the song is its dedication, to the fourteen-year-old Mary E. South of Terre Haute, whom the composer had never met. Paul Dresser died penniless at age 47 in 1906, but his legacy lives in the history of American popular song as well as several landmarks around Terre Haute. At the 1958 opening of his boyhood home as a museum, the elusive Mary E. South turned up as a hostess.
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