Hoosier Authors: Paul Dresser

*Post written by Mona Meyer, Archives and Special Collections Metadata Librarian.

Head shot of Paul Dresser, n.d. Source: https://www.vchsmuseum.org/dresser-house

Head shot of Paul Dresser, n.d. Source: https://www.vchsmuseum.org/dresser-house

Back on August 8, 2017, my colleague James Wethington wrote about the Hoosier author, Theodore Dreiser. I bet you didn’t know that another Dreiser boy also gained literary fame, this time in the field of music.

Johann Paul Dreiser, Jr. was born April 22, 1858, in Terre Haute, Indiana, 13 years before his more famous brother. His family intended him for the priesthood, and at the age of 12, he was sent to St. Meinrad.

Inspired by the bands and traveling musical groups that he encountered during his youth, Dresser already knew that he wanted to be a musician and rebelled against his parent’s decision. After about a year at the seminary, Dresser ran away with a traveling minstrel group and ended up back in his home town, working odd jobs until his father enrolled him in a new school: St. Bonaventure Lyceum academy in Terre Haute. Here, Dresser received piano lessons and finished his education.” Determined to pursue a career in music, he joined up with other minstrel shows. During this time he changed his last name from Dreiser to Dresser, possibly to appeal to a wider audience by appearing to be less “ethnic.”

Saint Meinrad Archabbey seminary in Spencer County, Indiana, 2009. Source: Donald Janzen collection, CS 662, 191dc-0021.

Saint Meinrad Archabbey seminary in Spencer County, Indiana, 2009. Source: Donald Janzen collection, CS 662, 191dc-0021.

He lived for about 5 years in Evansville (1881-1886), in this house near the corner of East Franklin Street and Main Street.

Paul Dresser's home in Evansville, Indiana from c. 1881 to 1886, 1919. Source: Thomas Mueller collection, MSS 264-2961.

Paul Dresser’s home in Evansville, Indiana from c. 1881 to 1886, 1919. Source: Thomas Mueller collection, MSS 264-2961.

In the late 1880’s Dresser moved to New York and hit it big in Tin Pan Alley. “During the 1890s, Dresser was one of the country’s most celebrated and affluent composers of popular songs. He was, however, a big spender, and he eventually fell on hard times, selling his interest in his music-publishing firm, Howley, Havilland & Dresser, in 1904. In poor health and dispirited, he died at age 47 at his sister’s house in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he had been living for several years.

What did he do, in his short life, to be remembered and noted today? In 1899, he wrote a little ditty entitled “On the Banks of the Wabash, Far Away,” which was adopted as Indiana’s official state song in 1913.

Sheet music to "On the Banks of the Wabash Far Away", n.d. Source: https://bit.ly/2J9101i

Sheet music to “On the Banks of the Wabash Far Away”, n.d. Source: https://bit.ly/2J9101i

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.”

(This is the chorus, which is the most that is usually sung, even though there are verses.)

The next time you hear the Indiana state song sung, remember it was written by a boy from Terre Haute.

Resources Consulted:

MSS 264, the Thomas Mueller photographic collection

InfoPlease: Paul Dresser Biography

Song of America: Paul Dresser

Songwriters Hall of Fame: Paul Dresser

This entry was posted in Evansville, Indiana, Famous Hoosiers, Hoosier Authors, Indiana history, literature, Local history, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

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