Sunday, March 13, 2016

Songs of Place: On the Banks of the Wabash, Far Away

This whole notion about collecting "songs of place" began to stir in me when I saw a Folklore Music Map of the United States not long ago. It was published in the 50s by Hagstrom, a major map publisher of the period, taking advantage no doubt of the folk revival then going on in America.

As you may have noticed, I'm a great fan of folk and country music, or what is nowadays called Americana. But I want to switch gears for a moment. I also love the Jazz standards and Tin Pan Alley music of old. Our entry today is straight out of Tin Pan Alley.

On the Banks of the Wabash Far Away happens to be state song of Indiana. I learn from Wikipedia that it was written back 1897 by Paul Dresser (who was the brother of Theodore Dreiser). Here the Wabash is a kind of rural idyll, fondly remembered. This means of course, it was an idyll that people responded to, missed, even in 1897. The thing about one of these conjured and idealized places is that as they recede into the past,becoming  more and more remote from our own experience, they become all the more cherished longed for. So that by the time the Mills Brothers come along, 40 years later, a time of stressful change, the song is still striking a chord in people. The longing for Eden never dies!

The nice thing here about the Mills Brothers' version is that the song seems to pass through some kind of time warp, beginning as an almost folksy recollection with next to no instrumental accompaniment, then midway acquiring a slightly swinging rhythm along with swellings strings. The Mills Brothers, by the way, were one of the greatest vocal groups of the century.

Added bonus, just so you can see the great Mills Brothers as well as hear them in their early days when they did their own vocal instrumentation:

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