Paul Dresser

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Great insights into the life and work of this composer may be found in the writings of his brother, Theodore Dreiser, particularly in the autobiographical works Dawn and Newspaper Days, as well as the…
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Great insights into the life and work of this composer may be found in the writings of his brother, Theodore Dreiser, particularly in the autobiographical works Dawn and Newspaper Days, as well as the chapter entitled "My Brother Paul" in Dreiser's collection of essays, Twelve Men. Born April 22, 1858, in Terre Haute, IN, Paul was sent to a Catholic seminary, as Johann Sr. expected his eldest son to become a priest. After two years of straitened instruction, the young man cut himself loose, returned to secular life, and began consorting with disreputable characters. Implicated in a case of larceny, he landed in prison and found himself homeless after his release. Joining up with a nomadic troupe of entertainers, he wrote songs and performed in a medicine show's vocal quartet purveying Hamlin's Wizard Oil. Now he began to call himself Paul Dresser and arranged for the publication of a gaudy little pamphlet called The Paul Dresser Songster, which he hawked after each performance.

For the next phase of his career, Dresser applied burnt cork to his face and took up itinerant minstrelsy during the late 1870s. For the next 15 years he was very successful in that strange form of entertainment whereby white men became grossly exaggerated caricatures of black people for fun and profit. Dresser's first successful songs were sentimental pastels of homesick whimsicality. The first to qualify under the newly invented category of "hit" was "The Letter That Never Came," composed while Dresser was appearing with the Billy Rice Minstrels in 1885. Memories of his jailhouse apprenticeship apparently suggested "The Convict and the Bird" in 1887, then "The Pardon That Came Too Late" in 1891. For a while he enjoyed star status at the Evansville Opera House, and wrote humorous prose for the Evansville Argus. In 1893 he starred in The Danger Signal, a lowbrow comedy staged in St. Louis. By 1894, having spent years on the road all over Eastern and Midwestern North America, Dresser opted for a more sedentary and lucrative involvement in the music publishing business. He partnered himself in with the Manhattan firm of Howley & Haviland, then wrote "The Battery" and "Just Tell Them That You Saw Me" in 1895.

One of Dresser's most famous and successful melodies, "On the Banks of the Wabash, Far Away," materialized in 1897. The Spanish American War provided him with blustery subject matter for half a dozen jingoistic tunes in 1898. The nadir of Dresser's willingness to resort to racist doggerel was reached in 1900 with "Did You Ever Hear a Nigger Say 'Wow'" and "Niggah Loves His Possum" in 1905. It is important to bear in mind that the U.S. entertainment industry was partly founded on degraded songs with titles like these. Let's remember 1905 as the year that Paul Dresser wrote "My Gal Sal," a warm tribute to his friend and companion Annie Brace, aka Sallie Walker, who was the well-known proprietor of a whorehouse back in Evansville. It is the only Dresser song that's still likely to be heard from time to time as a traditional jazz or folk standard. Unfortunately, he didn't live to enjoy the success of this unforgettable melody. Dresser was incapable of adapting to changing popular tastes; his fortunes waned quickly as he made several disastrous financial maneuvers, finally dying in abject poverty from a heart attack and cerebral hemorrhage on January 30, 1906.

"On the Banks of the Wabash, Far Away" was adopted as the official state song of Indiana in March of 1913. In a triumph of Tin Pan Alley plagiarism, James Hanley and Ballard MacDonald's "Back Home Again in Indiana" came out in 1917. Based on Dresser's "Wabash" in substance, essence, form, and content, "Indiana" became a hot jazz standard, later inspiring Charlie Parker to create his amazing "Donna Lee," based upon the chord progressions of "Indiana." Theodore Dreiser ultimately lost a plagiarism suit filed on his brother's behalf, and "Wabash" has been largely forgotten, as most people today assume that "Indiana" is Indiana's state song. Dresser was one of the first songwriters to rake in enormous quantities of cash by feeding songs to a public hungry for entertainment (the songs) and commodity (sheet music). His bottle rocket of a career paved the way for dozens of Tin Pan Alley success stories.