Paul Dresser’s “My Gal Sal” was written as a fond reflection on one of the great loves in that songwriter’s life, his multiple-year affair with an Evansville madam called Sal Davis, real name, as research has recently shown: Annie Swanner. We know about her mainly through scattered writings left by Dresser’s now-more-famous younger brother, Theodore Dreiser. She helped keep the Dreiser family alive at one point in the 1870s, when they were at their poorest. Dresser is said to have broken her heart by running off with one of her “girls,” but a quarter-century later, he hadn’t forgotten her, and because of him the whole world knows her name. Or at least her nickname. “My Gal Sal” was a legitimate hit pop song in America for about sixty years: that is, between the appearance of the sheet music and the Burl Ives version from the 1960s, the last time the song impinged on the charts. That’s unheard of. “The Star Spangled Banner,” maybe? It has to be counted, by any definition, one of our greatest pop songs, period.
First, the original. Well, really there is none. That’s one of the beauties of the sheet-music era. The original was however you yourself, or the guy at the bar, or your sister, decided to play it the first time. But here is as close as we can come to a “recorded original.” This is the minstrel singer Byron G. Harlan in 1907. Not my favorite version. As my friend Audun Vinger said one night about a Norwegian band, “I sort of hate this, but it exists.” Dresser died the year before this was made. He did not sanction it.
Red Nichols, 1927. Nichols is said to have performed on over four thousand recordings in the 1920s: a track per day, that is, for a decade.
One of my favorite versions, the Mound City Blue Blowers, 1929. For God’s sake please watch the drummer’s dancing, which is a powerful anti-depressant:
An important moment: Jelly Roll Morton “transforms” the song for Alan Lomax in 1938, teaching him how it would have changed in a New Orleans piano player’s hands, back in 1906 when the song hit the streets down there. The song begins slowly, dreamily, with Morton crooning the lyrics. Then, after about a minute and a half, the rhythm changes abruptly, starts jumping, snapping its fingers. Morton is jazzing, blueing it.
Rita Hayworth learning and performing the song in the eponymous 1942 film.
A slow and somewhat boring barbershop quartet version done by the Eton Brothers in the 40s. But with live footage! And it’s sort of creepy, on second listening.
Kid Ory’s band, c. 1947. Probably the greatest version, musically speaking, in that here the song’s jazz possibilities are explored most fully. Partly that has to do with the sheer excellence of the playing. But I can also say, as a person with a claim to having listened to the most versions of “My Gal Sal” the most times of anyone in America, that this is the one I hum and hear. It just swings.
The Ozzie and Harriet Show, 1957, another important “transformation”: again and again, “My Gal Sal” was asked to perform the function of showing that your grandparents’ pop music could also be your own, and therefore, one supposes, that the generations could live with one another:
The Everly Brothers crush it in the year 1961, in Nashville, with Hank “Sugarfoot” Garland on murderous guitar.
Burl Ives has a hit with it in the 60s! (’65, I think? If so, the song’s sixtieth anniversary):
John Jeremiah Sullivan uncovered the identity of “My Gal Sal” while conducting research for his essay “The Curses,” published in two parts in the SR’s Winter and Spring 2017 issues. Read Part I and Part II, or listen to the first-ever recording of “The Curse,” the lost ballad composed by Dresser in 1887. At the time, critics considered it his finest work, and, by some definitions, it may be considered the first blues song.