Jim Nabors will not be singing the state song at the Indianapolis 500 later this month. He has retired. This year the music will be performed by the popular a cappella group Straight No Chaser. But they won’t be singing the state song, either.
“Back Home Again in Indiana” is not the official state song of Indiana, although it seems mysteriously similar to the one selected by the state legislature in 1913.
The duly-authorized song is “On the Banks of the Wabash Far Away,” written by Paul Dresser in 1897. The composer was the brother of novelist Theodore Dreiser. Paul changed his last name slightly to distinguish himself from his more famous sibling.
“On the Banks of the Wabash” was hugely popular at the time of its adoption as the state song. Popular bands and quartets of the day made the tune familiar to all of America. It earned more than $100,000 in sheet music sales and became one of the first hit records, played on thousands of Victrolas across the land.
The lyrics speak lovingly of Dresser’s childhood in Terre Haute along the Wabash.
“Oh, the moonlight’s fair tonight along the Wabash,
From the fields there comes the breath of new mown hay.
Thro’ the sycamores the candle lights are gleaming,
On the banks of the Wabash, far away.”
Dresser’s composition expresses a sad longing for a lost sweetheart resting in a churchyard cemetery. Perhaps it is this melancholy tone that does not make the piece popular for the opening of the Indianapolis 500, where a few hundred thousand people cheer for their favorite drivers and consume large quantities of cold beverages.
“Back Home Again in Indiana” is a much more upbeat tune. Written by Ballard McDonald and James F. Hanley in 1917, it swings along so much that many jazz artists have adopted it as one of their standards. The lyrics praise the Hoosier state and speak of gleaming candle lights through sycamore trees, the fragrance of new-mown hay, and the loveliness of moonlight on the Wabash.
Do the words sound familiar? There is no mistaking the similarities in the two songs. The lyrics are obviously a lot alike. Musicians also note that both songs have some of the same harmonic components.
Paul Dresser had died by the time “Back Home Again” appeared, but the resemblance between the songs did not go unnoticed by his estate. Legal action was contemplated. However, copyright laws at the time were weak, and apparently McDonald and Hanley did not have to face the music.
Everyone was a bit concerned when Jim Nabors announced last year that he would be singing “Back Home Again in Indiana” for the last time. His sincere rendering of the old song had established a tradition. Great sighs of relief were heard when the Speedway announced that Straight No Chaser would take the musical mantle this year. The group, made up of Indiana University men, has found worldwide success. There is no doubt that they can be trusted to treat the song with tender loving care.
“Back Home Again” long-ago eclipsed Dresser’s composition in popularity. It’s the one Hoosiers want to hear when they are having fun. But the folks at the Speedway have not completely forgotten “On the Banks of the Wabash.” It has its place each year in pre-race ceremonies, played in an instrumental version by the famous Purdue University marching band.
Terre Haute has not forgotten Dresser, either. Last year the city dedicated a bronze sculpture in honor of the composer. Located in Fairbanks Park on the Wabash River, the memorial is near the home where Dresser was born.
So, which do you like? The official state song or the one that is most popular?
No matter. Both have the musical power to lift our spirits and take us to beautiful places, where the moonlight is always on the Wabash, candlelight forever gleams through the sycamores, and the scent of new-mown hay lovingly lingers a long, long time.
Yes, there is room in Hoosier hearts for both of these Indiana songs.