The behind-the-scenes "making of" documentary essay series about preparing songs for performance.
Indiana Medley (2018-19 Presentation)
-- Back Home Again in Indiana (1917; Music: James F. Hanley; Lyrics: Ballard MacDonald)
+ On the Banks of the Wabash, Far Away (1897; M+L: Paul Dresser)
From the script for “A Little Travelin' Music”:
Every vacation must eventually come to a close. Tonight, we’ve traveled to exciting destinations all across the United States, from east to west and across the sea, with the promise of even more exotic locales beyond. And the whole time, we’ve been accompanied by the tunes and words of people who love these places. But no matter how far and how long we travel, we are always drawn Back Home Again.
Recap: The Sounds of Indiana barbershop chorus presented what we call ‘The Travel Show’ in 2018, following the same “standard documentary format that had been so enthusiastically received for the previous year’s ‘The Indiana Show.’ As before, this concert format presents a mix of chorus and quartet songs set around a particular theme, interspersed with slides of short video clips each paired with a Ken Burns-style voice-over narration to introduce and sometimes close out each song. The song order for The Travel Show was determined roughly by the geography of each song. Last week, we took off for a flight around the world, but now it’s time to head back home.
If you’ve been following my Notes on Notes from the beginning (i.e. since last October), you may remember that I’ve already discussed Indiana Medley. It was the closing song of 2017’s ‘The Indiana Show,’ and the first one I wrote a commentary on for this series. ‘The Indiana Show’ was a compilation of songs by composers or performers born in, or groups formed in, our home state, and the concert fittingly concluded with a medley of the official Indiana State Song (On the Banks of the Wabash) and its more famous cousin (Back Home Again in Indiana).
Back in October, I talked about how SoI presented the song as a lullaby, an interpretation that we developed as a chorus during the spring leading up to the concert (which was at the end of September). Some time before then, however, probably over the summer, I started to conceive a second idea in my head.
First, here are the song’s lyrics again (punctuated and capitalized as printed):
I have always been a wand’rer
Over land and Sea.
And yet a moon beam on the water
casts a spell over me,
A vision fair I see
Again I seem to be:
Back home again in Indiana
And it seems that I can see
The gleaming candlelight still shining bright
Thru the Sycamores for me (For me),
The new mown hay sends all its fragrance
From the fields I used to roam.
When I dream about the moonlight on the wabash,
Then I long for my Indiana home (My home).
Oh, The moonlight’s fair tonight along the Wabash,
From the fields there comes the breath of new mown hay.
Through the sycamores the candlelights are gleaming,
On the banks of the Wabash far away (far away).
Back home again (back home again) in Indiana!,
How I long for my Indiana home (my home).
Be it ever my home.
In my first commentary, I summarized our ‘Indiana Show’ interpretation as an “intense longing for a return to a faraway time and place, yet softly spoken enough to lull a child to sleep.” The narrator is a father, or perhaps grandfather, singing to a child “who has never been to Indiana and who likely never will be.” For ‘The Travel Show,’ we presented a similar stance, but with the added feeling of literally returning “back home again” after a vacation, that long, exhaling relief of finally dropping your suitcase and flopping down in your chair or on your bed.
But now consider yet another version, which is actually more like our presentation of Georgia on My Mind: the narrator is us, each singer, and we are the one who is away from Indiana and may never return.
The opening lines suggest to me that we left our home state a long time ago and now travel around a lot, probably for work. (Salesman? Trucker?) For whatever reason, though, we haven’t been back there in quite a while. Then, as we’re driving across the countryside on a clear night, we cross a river, and a flash of moonlight on the water's surface suddenly brings back a whole host of other memories: That moonbeam on that river is a reflection of our Indiana river. Those lights peeking through the trees are from Indiana candles shining through Indiana sycamores. That smell of cut grass is from new-mown Indiana hay. All of it, from the sky to the ground and in between, reminds us of Home.
As a performer, I observed that the first refrain here, the well-known chorus of Back Home Again, focuses on memories: that’s the way things were back then, back there. (Notice the “back” reiterated in both the sentiment and the title, even.) The next portion of the song, however, conspicuously switches to present tense: this is how things are now, tonight, On the Banks of the Wabash.
The same moon is still shining, the same hay is still sending its fragrance. The same candles are shining through the same trees, beckoning us back light a lighthouse. In my mind, this particular line is an emotional call-back to one of the chorus’ older songs, where the sight of a literal lighthouse through the darkness was a relief, assuring a sailor that he was almost home to his sweetheart. Except in this case, the light is reaching out to us from far away… and we’re driving in the opposite direction.
The melodic climax of the song is the next phrase, the reprise of the famous “Back Home Again” major arpeggio. I feel the emotional crux of the piece, on the other hand, in the preceding line, which is title of the medley’s second component: “On the banks of the Wabash far away (far away).”
In the chord of the first “far” there (a “barbershoppy” E-flat major with flat seventh), the basses have the lowest note of the song, the E-flat below the bottom line of the bass staff. The timbre of this very low pitch (the lower vocal limit for most of our singers), coupled with the physical power and support we have to utilize in order to actually sing it at all, adds a heavy weight to the spread of this chord before it resolves back to the tonic A-flat major.
This weight is both musical and emotional; it embodies our deep disappointment, resentment, despair, regret, even physical heartache that we are not in that place right now. As much as we wish we were, something is keeping us away, and if we’re honest, that “something” is probably connected to a choice we made ourself. And that’s why the thought hurts so keenly.
The reprise, then, is not a nostalgic longing for home, but a painful one. Rather than a comforting memory of the way things used to be, this is a yearning, pining, “what am I doing with my life? Why am I going away?!”-type longing. It fits with Merriam-Webster’s definition of the word: “feeling a strong desire or craving especially for something not likely to be attained.” Note the part that I italicized.
But then, on the echo “my home,” we receive a moment of clarity. There is certainly much to be unpacked behind the word “home” (and we have to portray that complexity in our performance of this single syllable), but the modifier is more important here: “my home.” “Be it ever my home.” No matter what we do, how far away we go, who we become, and how or why it all happens, Indiana will always be there waiting to welcome us Back Home.
I haven’t shared these thoughts yet at rehearsal with the rest of the chorus. By the time I solidified this version of the song in my head, we were getting too close to the date of ‘The Travel Show’ to try changing our presentation. But maybe we’ll get another opportunity to try it this way (district contest is coming up soon…).
At any rate, Indiana Medley was the concluding song of ‘The Travel Show’! From here, I’ll have to find some new pieces to write about for you. I’ll share some of our upcoming schedule with you as a preview and potential teaser for what you may read about here or see and hear in concert at some point in the coming year:
• ‘The Valentine Show 2019’ in early February
• Cardinal District Contest/Convention in mid-March
• ‘The School/Kids Show’ in late spring
• ‘The Drinking Show’ in late summer or early fall
As I mentioned in an earlier article, and as you can see from this list, the music goes on! ;)
January 27, 2019