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Paul Dresser

Paul Dresser as he appeared on the 1897 back cover of the sheet music for "On the Banks of the Wabash, Far Away"
Born Johann Paul Dresser, Jr.
April 22, 1857(1857-04-22)
Terre Haute, Indiana
Died January 31, 1906 (aged 48)
New York City, New York
Cause of death brain hemorrhage
Resting place St. Boniface Cemetery, Chicago, Illinois
Ethnicity German
Citizenship American
Occupation Songwriter, Actor, Playwright, Composer, Musician
Home town Terre Haute, Indiana
Spouse(s) None
Parents Johann Paul and Sarah Mary Schanab Dresser
Awards Songwriters Hall of Fame

Johann Paul Dresser, Jr. (April 22, 1857  – January 31, 1906) was an important American songwriter of the late 19th century and early 20th century. As a child and adolescent he had a number of run-ins with the law and spent several months in jail before joining a band of traveling minstrels. He grew in fame and began performing in several regional theaters before joining John Hamlin's national show in 1878. He continued traveling nationally with a number of different acts, eventually joining the The Tin Soldier in 1890. There he began writing many prominently featured songs which led him to begin publishing music independently.

Starting a partnership with New York City's Tin Pan Alley music firms, he began composing a series of songs which included some that became amongst the most popular songs of his time. The most famous of these was "On the Banks of the Wabash, Far Away", which became the second best-selling song, in terms of sheet music, during the nineteenth century. He became very wealthy from his business and works, but quickly fell into financial distress at the turn of the century as his genre fell out of style and his income dropped, a situation exacerbated because of his overspending. His business failed and he declared bankruptcy in 1905. He died the following year.


Early life


Family and background

Johann Paul Dresser, Jr. was born the fourth son of Johann Paul and Sarah Mary Schanab Dresser in Terre Haute, Indiana on April 22,1857. His father was a German immigrant from Koblenz, and was the manager of a factory that produced wool cloth. His mother was a Mennonite prior to her marriage, but had been disowned by her family after eloping with her husband.[1] Dresser's three older brothers had each died in infancy, and he was the first to survive.[2] Dresser was followed by nine younger siblings, the last born being Theodore Dresser (the author, Theodore Dreiser). Dresser was nicknamed "Pudley" by his family because of his chubbiness. In July 1863, the Dresser family moved to Sullivan, Indiana where Dresser's father was made foreman of the newly opened Sullivan Woolen Mills.[3][4]

During Dresser's youth the family struggled with periods of poverty. His father lost his income after a fire destroyed the mill he worked at during 1865. He was able to open a partnership with two friends in 1867 to purchase and operate a new mill, but the business lost its roof in a storm in 1871, and the three men sold it for a loss.[5] During the young Dresser's days in Sullivan he first became interested in music and song. The town was frequented by bands that played many of the era's popular and patriotic songs, and Dresser also spent considerable time at carnivals, festivals, circuses, and fairs.[6] In 1871, the family moved back to Terre Haute where Dresser's father secured a job in another woolen mill.[4][7]

Education and rebellion

About 1870, Dresser's father decided to send him to a Catholic seminary where he could be trained to become a priest. The senior Dresser was a "religious zealot" and believed the course to best for his oldest son.[8] At St. Meinrad Seminary, Dresser was befriended by Father Herman Joseph Alerding. Alerding taught Dresser to play a number of brass musical instruments.[9] Dresser quickly found the Benedictine seminary to be too strict and confining and decided to leave. After Dresser became famous, he claimed to have got in trouble with the priesthood for teaching younger boys "monkey tricks", and one day he joined a group of traveling minstrels passing through the area, leaving the school.[4][10]

At first Dresser returned to Sullivan where he stayed with friends to avoid his father's wrath. He took a job as a farm worker helping with the harvest in 1871 and worked through the summer of 1872.[4] Finally, fourteen-year-old Dresser returned home and began working a series of odd-jobs to help support his family. He first worked in a distillery, then as a butcher, then for the Evansville and Terre Haute Railroad selling goods to passengers at the station depot. He also worked briefly as a blacksmith and Modoc Oil salesman.[11] During this time, his father was able to secure a new education venue for his son at the St. Bonaventure Lyceum academy in Terre Haute. At the school he took piano lessons and finished his formal education in 1873. The relationship between Dresser and his father quickly deteriorated. His younger sister claimed that Dresser had run-ins with the local police. His parents sent him back to Sullivan to work on the a farm away from the city.[12][13]

After returning home the following year, Dresser and his father resumed their hostile relationship. Dresser immediately returned to his old habits and began spending time with delinquents and was frequently drunk. Father Aldering soon came to visit Dresser and convinced him to give up his lifestyle and take a job as a teacher and musician at a cathedral in Brazil, Indiana in 1875. Dresser took the job, but after less than a year, he attended a circus against the wishes of the local bishop. The bishop was furious and sent for Dresser's father. The two men presented him with two options, to return home and be sent to a house of correction, or to be disowned by them. Dresser chose the later, packed his belongings and left.[14][15]

Dresser sought his old friend Charley Kelly, a traveling minstrel, and joined his act as a piano player. They began traveling around southern Indiana holding shows to earn a meager income. After a few months, Kelly disappeared with all their money during a show. Without money to pay the bill for his board or for their food, the local sheriff put Dresser in jail for two days. He then walked part of the way to Indianapolis in search of work, before stealing aboard a train for the rest of the journey.[16] In Indianapolis, Dresser met Father Alerding who had been recently moved there. Alerding gave Dresser another job as a teacher but withheld all his pay until he taught for a full year.[17]

In 1876, Dresser received his salary and returned to his family in Terre Haute. Almost immediately he resumed his old lifestyle, and spent most of his savings on liquor at a local bar. As his money ran low, he turned to crime, and robbed two different saloons of whiskey and cash after they had closed for the night. Dresser was jailed for ten weeks before his trial. He was convicted and sentenced to another month in jail and fined. He was released in June 1876 and returned home.[18]

Musical career

Early career

Dresser's father considered him an embarrassment and was looking to force his son to leave the area. Dresser was able to secure a job as an organist and singer with the Lemon Brothers, a traveling minstrel group from Illinois. He traveled with the group for over a year performing as an actor and singer, before they disbanded near the end of 1877. Dresser then traveled to Chicago in search of work, where he was employed by John Austin Hamlin to sing and perform in his traveling show.[19] Hamlin used the show to draw an audience and then marketed his patent medicines. James Whitcomb Riley was also employed by Hamlin at the time, and he and Dresser became acquaintances. Dresser began to compose his first songs while in Hamlin's employ, which were marketed as Paul Dresser Songster songs and sold as sheet music.[20][21]

About 1878, Dresser took a new job with Barlow, Wilson, Primrose, and West, a prominent traveling minstrel group. The troupe was among the most famous in the nation at the time and they offered Dresser a lucrative income. Sometime in 1879, Dresser began seeking employment in Augustin Daly's theatre in New York City. Daly’s theatre was among the most prominent actors school of the time and his students frequently were in shows on Broadway.[22] Eventually Dresser secured employment at the theater and was trained to act. In 1881, Dresser returned to Indiana and took a job at the Apollo Theatre in Evansville. At the Apollo he occasionally acted, but normally provided music for the plays.[21][23]

Growing popularity

In Evansville, Dresser honed his skills and began to grow into a nationally renowned talent. He began writing a column in a local newspaper where he critiqued plays and music. By the time he left Evansville, he could guarantee a full house whenever he performed.[24] In March 1881, Dresser returned to Chicago at the head of his own act he called "Fish Cakes". In Chicago he starred as the featured act in a benefit concert for Daniel Decatur Emmett at the Chicago Academy of Music. His act was a success and he was able to secure appearances in Boston, Philadelphia, and New York City. He also appeared in a number of smaller cities, including Indianapolis, Louisville, Cincinnati, and Pittsburg. [25]

Between shows, Dresser returned to Evansville where he had purchased a home. In 1882 he decided to visit his family, whom he had not communicated with in over three years. He found the family in such desperate financial shape that they had had to split up, with the father and the older children in Terre Haute, and his mother and the younger children working on a farm in Sullivan. Dresser gave his mother a substantial sum of money. He soon arranged for his mother and three youngest siblings to move into his Evansville home where he set them up with housekeeping and had all their needs met.[26]

Dresser's younger brother, the famous novelist and outspoken communist, Theodore Dreiser

Dresser began a relationship with Annie Brace, the proprietor of Evansville’s most prominent brothel. Her professional name was Sallie Walker, and she may have been the subject of one of Dresser's most famous songs, My Gal Sal. Dresser kept no diary of his personal life, and most of it is known through his younger brother Theodore. Historians believe that Annie Brace and Sallie Walker may have both been aliases for Minnie Holland. Brace was about four years older than Dresser. Dresser and Brace carried on a love affair for many years, but never married.[27] The couple eventually had a falling out around 1889 because of Dresser's frequent affairs with other women, usually prostitutes.[28]

Dresser began working with a group of larger performers who included James Goodwin, John Leach, and Emma Lamouse. Together they held many shows in Chicago and attracted very large audiences in part because of their lower than typical admission fee.[29] During that time, Dresser marketed his work as "comic songs." In 1883 Dresser had his first songs published as sheet music since his time working with Hamlin. "Essie, over the Sea", "See That No One Plucks the Flowers from My Grave", and "My Mother Taught Me How to Pray" were published by Arthur P. Schmidt and sold in Indiana and Illinois. The sale earned Dresser a modest income, and accompanied with his income from his shows, he began to become wealthy.[30]

In 1884 Dresser claimed to have become ill with an undisclosed sickness. For two years he remained in the southern United States away from his family and career. His brother Theodore speculated that he might have had a secret love child or contracted syphilis. Dresser’s song which was published just after returning to the public, “The Curse”, may have referred to this period. The lyrics refer to a dead child and a lover turned enemy.[31] Whatever the case, Dresser did not return to his family or the public until August 1886. He then put together a new act entitled The Two Johns and resumed traveling and holding shows.[32][33]

National fame

Move to Tin Pan Alley

The disputed sheet music cover of The Letter That Never Came.

By 1888 Dresser began to believe his sheet music would be popular nationally and not just in the midwest. He decided to move to New York City and employed the services of Willis Woodward and Company, part of what later became Tin Pan Alley. He continued traveling with his The Two Johns show until the end of 1889, but he began to focus on composing music to be printed. The following year he began performing in the act called Clipper, a show lead by Philip Stewarts.[34] In 1890 Dresser joined an act that would move him to the top of his business. A Tin Soldier was an act put together by Frank McKee and Charles Hoyt and was in its fourth season.[35] Hoyt was at that time among the most famous playwrights in the nation. As part of the twelve member cast, Dresser began traveling nationally to perform. Dresser had been large since his youth, and by 1890 he weighed nearly 300 pounds (140 kg). In the act, Dresser performed as a jolly man who sang and played instruments.[36]

Dresser was featured prominently in the act, and a number of his own songs were worked into the show. The act itself was nationally acclaimed and most papers wrote of Dresser as the star. He began to have a dispute with Hoyt over the use of his songs, and Hoyt’s refusal to acknowledge him as the composer. Dresser finally left the act in April 1891 over a dispute about his composition of the song "The Letter That Never Came", when Hoyt refused to put Dresser's name on the sheet music cover. Dresser then began to sell his songs to other acts for use in their performances. After they made his songs famous, he would then publish the sheet music and sell them through the firms on Tin Pan Alley. Among the prominent acts he sold was The Lone Grave, The Convict and the Bird, and Here Lies an Actor. His songs and acts were usually sad and dramatic, but a few were romantic and silly. Dresser began performing again in an act entitled The Danger Signal until the end of 1893.[37][38]

Howland, Haviland and Company

The sheet music cover for "Just Tell Them That You Saw Me", 1895

In mid 1893, at the height of the Panic of 1893, Dresser began a partnership with Frederick Haviland and Patrick Howley. Dresser was a silent partner in the business which published his works for next several years.[39] Dresser stopped traveling and performing and began to focus solely on composing music.[38] In 1894 he invited his younger brother Theodore to come live with him in New York. It was during his years with his brother that Theodore first began writing. He later became a nationally known novelist.[40] During their time together, the brothers were regular patrons of the local brothels and saloons.[41]

Dresser began composing his most famous songs during this time, including "Just Tell Them That You Saw Me." Along with a number of other songs, they were included in the top minstrel acts around the country in 1894.[42] Dresser's success continued with "We Were Sweethearts for Many Years", in 1895, "Lost, Strayed or Stolen", in 1896, and his most famous hit, "On the Banks of the Wabash, Far Away", in 1897. Wabash took Dresser's career to its pinnacle. In the song he reminisced about his childhood home and lost love in Indiana, which was near the Wabash River.[43] He was compared in many newspapers to Stephen Foster, and he was for a period the most famous composer in the nation. "Wabash" became the second best selling song, in terms of sheet music sold, during the entire nineteenth century. Only Foster's "Suwannee River" surpassed Dresser's hit.[44][45]

"Wabash" earned Dresser many interviews with reporters. In one he was asked what inspired him to compose the song, to which he replied, "The same sweet memory that inspired that other Hoosier, James Whitcomb Riley, to sing the 'Old Swimmin' Hold."[46] "Wabash" alone earned Dresser over $100,000 ($2,552,800 in 2009 chained dollars). During his lifetime his income was estimated to have been about $375,000 ($9,573,000 in 2009 chained dollars) Musical historians attribute the success of the song to the "perfect marriage of words and music."[47] The flow of the music matches the words in a perfect fashion. The song was sung nationally and by millions. For over a decade, it was a featured song in almost every quartet in the nation.[48] The song spread internationally and came to played in many places around the world that were frequented by American travelers.[49] At the outbreak of the Spanish American War a folk version of the song with different lyrics began circulating, entitled "On the Banks of Havana, Far Away", in which the singer ridiculed the war and hoped to avoid the draft.[45][50]

The song was so well known that after a 1902 power outage at Madison Square Gardens left thousands of people in the dark, the entire crowd sang "Wabash" to prevent bedlam from breaking out while repairmen fixed the lighting. "Wabash" remained a popular song for nearly thirty years. In 1913 the song was made the official state song of Indiana.[51][45][52]

Later life

Fall from fame

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As the 19th century ended and the 20th began, American taste in popular music began to turn towards less sentimental fare: patriotic songs, ragtime (more syncopated African-American styles than the 'minstrel songs' and cakewalks), union and labor songs, and songs created for and derived from the more recent ethnic immigrant communities (e.g., Irish, Italian, and very importantly the beginnings of American 'musical theater,' in a large sense developed out of Yiddish theater). A newer group of writers and composers (e.g., Irving Berlin, b. 1888) began to dominate Tin Pan Alley and the explosive growth in recorded music (the sales of recorded music were soon to overwhelm the sales of printed sheet music). Dresser continued to write in his own genre, which came to be known as "mother-and-home" songs by later generations. Dresser fell out of style and sales of his music quickly decreased. "Wabash" was still selling sheet music copies by the thousands in 1900, and Dresser and his company opened a new and larger office.[53][54] In 1900 he published a book on composing music which was entitled Hits and Hitters: Secrets of the Music Publishing Business.[55]

In December 1900, Dresser's father died. Dresser and his father had not had any contact for decades, but he attended the funeral and wrote a song for his father. After the funeral he gave large sums of money to each of his siblings.[56] After returning to Terre Haute, Dresser became aware of the impoverished situation of many of his childhood friends which was caused by the recent economic downturn. Dresser began giving out money to his friends to help them.[57]

Despite his falling income, Dresser continued to spend liberally. He was not a competent businessman, but was brought on as an acting partner in his business which was renamed "Haviland, Howley, and Dresser". His partners hoped his name would help spur more business. His enterprises were soon met with financial losses though. He gave away large sums of money to his friends and family, spent vast sums at the city’s brothels and saloons, and by 1903 he was nearly impoverished.[58] The same year Haviland, the primary businessmen in the enterprise, left the partnership.[59] Dresser continued to write songs, but none seemed to bring the financial success the business needed. In 1905 Howland and Dresser declared bankruptcy, losing most of its possessions.[60][61]


With his lack of money, he was unable to continue his lifestyle at the saloons and brothels. To further depress him, his obesity made it difficult for him attract women leaving him suddenly depressed and alone. He tried a variety of diets, including only drinking milk for sustenance for nearly a month. His radical diets had some success and he claimed to have weighed 285 pounds (129 kg) by 1905, a drop of over 75 lbs from his peak weight.[62]

Dresser's health began to deteriorate rapidly at the end of 1905. He wrote to his sister that he was ill, but gave no details on the nature of his sickness. His finances finally gave out and he was forced to leave the hotel he was living in and move in with his sister and brother-in-law who lived in the city. His sister attempted to nurse him to health, but he lapsed in and out of consciousness and began bleeding. He died on January 31 at 6:23am from a brain hemorrhage.[63] Dresser’s funeral was held on February 4, and his remains held at Calvary Cemetery until March 19 when they were moved the St. Boniface Cemetery in Chicago for burial. Because Dresser was penniless, his remains were held in New York until his family could collect enough money to pay for his funeral service.[64][65][66]

Dresser was portrayed in the biopic My Gal Sal (1942) by actor Victor Mature. Dresser was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1970. In total, Dresser composed and published 158 songs, along with a number of other unpublished songs. His last work was published post posthumously in 1906, "The Judgment Day is Coming."


Many landmarks in Vigo County, Indiana, are named after Paul Dresser, including the Dresser Memorial Bridge and Dresser Drive. The unplatted community of Dresser, situated on the west bank of the Wabash River in Warren County, was also named for him.

His birthplace is maintained at Henry Fairbanks Park in Terre Haute by the Vigo County Historical Society. Dresser Drive, a street in the Forest Hills neighborhood of Anderson, Indiana, is named for him, as is the Dresser Bridge, which crosses the Wabash River, near Attica, Indiana.

Theodore Dreiser wrote an account of his brother's life in his book Twelve Men, published in 1919. A recent academic study of Dresser's life, On the Banks of the Wabash, Far Away: The Life and Music of Paul Dresser by Clayton W. Henderson, was published by the Indiana Historical Society Press in 2003.


  1. ^ Henderson, p. 3
  2. ^ Henderson, p. 8
  3. ^ Henderson, p. 9
  4. ^ a b c d Woodburn, p. 286
  5. ^ Henderson, p. 22
  6. ^ Henderson, p. 19
  7. ^ Henderson, p. 24
  8. ^ Henderson, p. 23
  9. ^ Henderson, p. 25
  10. ^ Henderson, p. 27
  11. ^ Henderson, p. 28
  12. ^ Henderson, p. 30
  13. ^ Woodburn, p. 287
  14. ^ Henderson, p. 31
  15. ^ Woodburn, p. 288
  16. ^ Henderson, p. 33
  17. ^ Henderson, p. 34
  18. ^ Henderson, p. 41
  19. ^ Henderson, p. 42
  20. ^ Hendricks, p. 46
  21. ^ a b Woodburn, p. 289
  22. ^ Henderson, p. 47
  23. ^ Henderson, p. 50
  24. ^ Henderson, p. 57
  25. ^ Henderson, p. 60
  26. ^ Henderson, pp. 68–70
  27. ^ Henderson, p. 75
  28. ^ Henderson, p. 81
  29. ^ Henderson, p. 85
  30. ^ Henderson, p. 87
  31. ^ Henderson, p. 91
  32. ^ Henderson, p. 99
  33. ^ Woodburn, p. 290
  34. ^ Henderson, p. 112
  35. ^ Woodburn, p. 291
  36. ^ Henderson, p. 121
  37. ^ Henderson, p. 152
  38. ^ a b Woodburn, p. 292
  39. ^ Henderson, p. 153
  40. ^ Henderson, p. 163
  41. ^ Henderson, p. 165
  42. ^ Henderson, p. 178
  43. ^ Woodburn, p. 293
  44. ^ Henderson, p. 205
  45. ^ a b c "Paul Dresser". Indiana Historical Society. Retrieved 2009-09-13.  
  46. ^ Henderson, p. 209
  47. ^ Henderson, p. 212
  48. ^ Henderson, p. 213
  49. ^ Henderson, p. 216
  50. ^ Henderson, p. 218
  51. ^ Henderson, p. 221
  52. ^ Woodburn, p. 295
  53. ^ Henderson, p. 227
  54. ^ Woodburn, pp. 296–297
  55. ^ Henderson, p. 237
  56. ^ Henderson, p. 246
  57. ^ Henreson, p. 251
  58. ^ Henderson, p. 241
  59. ^ Henderson, p. 277
  60. ^ Henderson, p. 295
  61. ^ Woodburn, p. 298
  62. ^ Henderson, p. 271
  63. ^ Henderson, p. 309
  64. ^ Henderson, p. 314
  65. ^ "Paul Dresser Obituary". New York Times. January 31, 1906. Retrieved 2009-09-13.  
  66. ^ Woodburn, p. 299


  • Sadie, S. (ed.) (1980) The New Grove Dictionary of Music & Musicians, [vol. # 5].
  • Henderson, Clayton W (2003). On the Banks of the Wabash: The Life and Time of Paul Dresser. Indiana Historical Society Press. ISBN 0871951665.  
  • Woodburn, James Albert, PHD, ed (June 1931). Indiana Magazine of History. XXXVI. Indiana University Press.  

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