An important article, viewed from the perspective of Dreiser studies, has just been published. It provides new information about the possible, if not likely, identity of a lover of Theodore Dreiser’s older brother Paul Dresser, the songwriter.
“112-year-old mystery solved? Indiana madam may have inspired famous song”
Paul Dresser wrote a popular song, “My Gal Sal,” in 1905, which, with the exception of another one of his songs, “On the Banks of the Wabash, Far Away,” is Paul’s best known song and which was a hit in its day. The song is about Paul’s lover, who was said to be the madam of a house of prostitution in Evansville, Indiana.
The article refers to ongoing research that has been pursued doggedly by New York Times Magazine writer John Jeremiah Sullivan and his research assistant Joel Finsel.
In his autobiogaphical work Dawn, Theodore Dreiser identified Sal, Paul’s lover, as Annie Brace, a madam whose working name was Sallie Walker.
Through painstaking sleuthing, Sullivan believes he has discovered the identity of the real Sal.
My thanks to Tamie Dehler for informing me about this article.
Composed by Dreiser’s brother Paul Dresser (1857-1906), “On the Banks of the Wabash” became the Indiana state song. Theodore Dreiser claimed to have written part of the lyrics himself. For a discussion of this, see On the Banks of the Wabash: The Life and Music of Paul Dresser by Clayton W. Henderson (Indiana Historical Society Press, 2003). See also “’On the Banks of the Wabash’: A Musical Whodunit” by Richard W. Dowell in Indiana Magazine of History 66 (June 1970) and “Collaborating on ‘The Banks of the Wabash’: A Brief History of an Interdisciplinary Debate, Some New Evidence, and a Reflexive Consideration of Turf and Ownership” by Carol S. Loranger and Dennis Loranger in Dreiser Studies 30.1 (1999).
“On the Banks of the Wabash, Far Away”
Round my Indiana homestead wave the cornfields,
In the distance loom the woodlands clear and cool.
Oftentimes my thoughts revert to scenes of childhood,
Where I first received my lessons, nature’s school.
But one thing there is missing from the picture,
Without her face it seems so incomplete.
I long to see my mother in the doorway,
As she stood there years ago, her boy to greet.
Oh, the moonlight’s fair tonight along the Wabash,
From the fields there comes the breath of newmown hay.
Through the sycamores the candle lights are gleaming,
On the banks of the Wabash, far away.
Many years have passed since I strolled by the river,
Arm in arm, with sweetheart Mary by my side,
It was there I tried to tell her that I loved her,
It was there I begged of her to be my bride.
Long years have passed since I strolled thro’ the churchyard.
She’s sleeping there, my angel, Mary dear,
I loved her, but she thought I didn’t mean it,
Still I’d give my future were she only here.
“My Gal Sal; or, They Called Her Frivolous Sal” (1905)
Composed by Dreiser’s brother Paul Dresser, this song did not become a hit until after Paul Dresser’s death in 1906. The song is about Annie Brace (alias Sallie Walker), an Evansville, Indiana madam who was Paul Dresser’s paramour. “My Gal Sal” is also the title of a 1942 film produced by Twentieth Century-Fox that was based on Paul Dresser’s life and which draws loosely on Theodore Dreiser’s affectionate memoir “My Brother Paul” in his Twelve Men.
“My Gal Sal.” Composed by Paul Dresser. Performed by Joan Morris, mezzo; William Bolcom, piano. From the album “Moonlight Bay” (Albany Records, catalogue # TROY318). Used with permission of Albany Records.
“My Gal Sal; or, They Called Her Frivolous Sal”
Everything is over and I’m feeling bad
I lost the best pal that I ever had
‘Tis but a fortnight since she was here
Seems like she’s gone tho’, for twenty years
Oh, how I miss her, my old pal
Oh, how I’d kiss her, My Gal Sal
Face not so handsome, but eyes don’t you know
That shone just as bright as they did years ago.
They called her frivolous Sal
A peculiar sort of a gal
With a heart that was mellow
An all ’round good fellow, was my old pal
Your troubles, sorrow and care
She was always willing to share
A wild sort of devil, but dead on the level
Was My Gal Sal.
Brought her little dainties just afore she died
Promised she would meet me on the other side
Told her how I love her, she said, “I know Jim
Just do your best, leave the rest to Him.”
Gently I pressed her to my breast
Soon she would take her last, long rest
She looked at me and murmured, “Pal.”
And softly I whispered “Goodbye, Sal.”