American singer, songwriter and minstrel performer, Paul Dresser had no formal training as a songwriter; but over a twenty-year period he composed more than 150 songs that became popular favorites. One was the second best-selling sheet music song of the 19th century, and later became Indiana’s state song. “On the Banks of the Wabash, Far Away.”
Dresser composed the ballad in 1897 and it officially became the state song of Indiana in 1913 – seven years after his death. But he was well known for writing songs about lost love, mother and home, and heroes who died in action. Other well-known minstrel ditties included “Just Tell Them That You Saw Me,” “We Were Sweethearts for Many Years,” and “The Letter That Never Came.”
Dresser grew up in Terre Haute, Indiana on the banks of the Wabash River and he reminisced about his Hoosier childhood in the song.
|West Baden Springs Hotel|
The location of where the story was written was open to interpretation. Elizabeth Stucky-French claimed that Dresser wrote the song while at Mudlavia Resort in Kramer, Indiana. Known as “Indiana’s Other Resort”, Mudlavia was a small hotel that could only accommodate 250 guests, mainly men. While French Lick and West Baden were known for their healing artisan waters – Pluto Water and Sprudel Water – Mudlavia was known for hot, steaming mud bath cures.
But legend, and some newspaper stories have it that at least part of the song was written at West Baden Springs Hotel. The hotel newspaper confirmed that Paul Dresser checked into West Baden Springs the first week of May 1897.
In a newspaper article published after Dresser’s death in 1906, it was revealed how Dresser came to write the song.
“One evening in the spring of 1897 the songwriter arrived at West Baden, Indiana. He was ill and tired and his mind was full of evil forebodings. On his way across the state he had stopped at Terre Haute and visited the old home, where he had spent his early days. He saw the sparkling waters of the Wabash. He saw the moonlight reflected on the surface and he saw the candlelights twinkling in the cottages through the tall sycamore trees on the banks. The memory of the past came before him like a dream. His heart was filled with sorrow and tenderness. At West Baden he asked for the key to the theatre, and passing through the long and gloomy hall he sat before the piano and in the fading light he played slowly the notes of his famous song, which came to him without effort … “
~ Washington Post, February 4, 1906
Sheet music revenues earned Dresser more than $100,000, about $2.5-million in today’s economy. The song was featured in dance halls, on vaudeville and was sung by barbershop quartets around the country. Dresser had written a song that was only rivaled in popularity by Stephen Foster’s “Suwannee River”.
By Joy Neighbors