The state song of Indiana is “On the banks of the Wabash, Far Away.” The lyrics and music were written by composer Paul Dresser. Written in 1899, the song was adopted by the Indiana legislature as the state song on 15 March 1913. The Wabash River is an important natural resource and considered emblematic of Indiana, also known as the “Hoosier State.” Dresser’s song is thought to capture the natural beauty of the state, its rural heritage, and its peoples’ sense of home.
Indiana is located in the Midwest region of the US and is bordered by the states of Ohio, Illinois Wisconsin and Kentucky. Indiana has its roots in agrarian society. Rivers also play an important part in Hoosier culture. The Wabash River is a large one and is still used for commerce and recreation. It is also the subject of many songs and poems and represents shared memories of many people who live in Indiana.
The state song of Indiana was very popular at the time it was written and is still played and sung at important events and social occasions. The song’s chorus talks about a late summer night in rural Indiana. As he remembers a lost love, he also recalls “the breath of new mown hay,” and candle light from farmhouses gleaming through the sycamore trees “On the banks of the Wabash far away.”
Paul Dresser lived in the city of Terre Haute, Indiana, which is in Vigo County. His brother was renowned writer Theodore Dreiser, author of the acclaimed novel “An American Tragedy.” Dresser’s early career in music started with a part in a medicine show in Indianapolis, the state’s capitol. After many different attempts at various jobs, he eventually became a songwriter and music publisher. He went on to become a nationally and internationally known songwriter and composer.
During Dresser’s career, which included the period of the “Gay Nineties” of the late 1800’s, he wrote over 100 songs in addition to the state song of Indiana. Focused on his creative life and reportedly generous to a fault, Dreiser did not manage his financial affairs well. His publishing business ultimately failed. Although his own music was extremely successful, in his later years he had little money.
Dresser died on 30 January 1901. The Vigo County Historical Society now owns the home that was his birthplace and where the state song of Indiana was begun, on what is now Dreiser Street, in Terre Haute. The historical society maintains the home, and it is preserved as a museum, which is open to the public for viewing.