Singer, songwriter and comedic actor from minstrel shows to vaudeville
Themes were home, boyhood, mother, patriotism, and romance
One of the most important composers of the 1890’s, Paul Dresser was born in Terre Haute, Indiana on April 21, 1859, just before the beginning of the Civil War.
As a boy, Dresser studied at St. Meinrad’s in Switz City, in training for priesthood. By age 16, he joined a medicine show in Indianapolis and toured in vaudeville as a singer and monologist. In the late 1880’s, Dresser moved to New York City and found work in the Billy Rice Minstrels and was a founding member of the music-publishing firm Howley, Haviland & Dresser.
As a songwriter, Dresser relied heavily on the sentimental themes of home, boyhood, mother, patriotism, and romance. By the late 1890’s, he was one of the most successful songwriters producing such hits as “Wide Wings”, “The Letter That Never Came”, “My Gal Sal”, “On the Banks of the Wabash” (which became Indiana’s state song), “The Blue and the Gray”, “Just Tell Them That you Saw Me”, “Once Ev’ry Year”, “The Curse of the Dreamer”, “The Pardon Came too Late”, “Don’t Tell Her That You Love Her”, “Your Mother Wants You Home Boy”, “Bethlehem”, “Mr. Volunteer”, “I Was Looking for My Boy, She Said.” He composed and published his more than 100 songs, 25 of which hit the Billboard top twenty.
Paul Dresser died in New York City on January 30, 1906 at the age of 47. His legacy lives on through the 1942 biopic My Gal Sal as well as the Indiana tributes including the Paul Dresser Memorial Association established in 1922; the Paul Dresser Drive dedicated in 1923 by the Banks-of-the-Wabash Association; and the dual bridges constructed in 1993 over the Wabash River named for Dresser and his brother, the famous novelist Theodore Dreiser. In 1967, the Indiana General Assembly designated Dresser’s birth home a State Shrine and Memorial, and the National Music Council listed it as "A Landmark of American Music". The home is also listed on the National Register of Historic Places.