The Curses: Part II

John Jeremiah Sullivan

Spring 2017

In the last issue and first part of this essay, readers were introduced to the seminal African American arts critic Columbus Bragg, who contributed a short-lived column to the Chicago Defender in and around 1914. Bragg’s was an obscure and in its own way grand American life. In St. Louis and Arkansas, he had risen through the lost world of the first black vaudeville theaters, becoming a champion cakewalker, but once reestablished up north with his wife and daughter he began to dream of a higher art. Over many years, he worked on plans for a stage play, a historical drama with music, titled The Ahjah. It was to be “Ethiopian,” not in the ironic sense used by and about the blackface minstrels among whom Bragg had worked down South, but truly so, telling the story of the African race in its dignity and wonder. He started writing his Defender column, “On and Off the Stroll,” largely as a way of advertising The Ahjah. As the show’s production drew near, however, his hearing began to fail (complications from an old injury). Two separate benefits were organized for him by the black entertainment community in Chicago to raise funds for a medical device. Both events seem to have been quite well attended. In November, announcing the upcoming second concert, Bragg writes an interesting and, for us, fateful sentence. It represents, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first time that anyone had ever used the two-word combination “the blues” to designate specifically “a song, melody, etc., performed in a blues style, as blues ballad, blues riff, blues song, etc.” He reports that his friend William Abel, the “director of amusement” at the city’s Mineral Springs Café, is to appear on the benefit program, and that Abel “will sing the first Blues song, entitled ‘Curses,’ by Mr. Paul Dresser.” In hopes, therefore, of understanding who and what Bragg meant, the following has been attempted.


Part II: The Curse of the Dreamer


Mr. William Abel, the race’s greatest descriptive singer, will sing

the first Blues song, entitled ‘Curses,’ by Mr. Paul Dresser.

—Columbus Bragg, The Chicago Defender, Nov. 7, 1914


–Birthplace of Paul Dresser, Fairbanks Park, Terre Haute, Indiana. Photograph by Floyd Mitchell. Collection of the author.


This is the house where the boy was born, and where he played on the floor as a toddler while the Civil War began. The house was not where it is today, in a small park on the banks of the Wabash. It stood about a halfmile farther north, at 318 South Second Street in downtown Terre Haute, Indiana, a couple of blocks from the river, in a row of similar-looking structures that precisely one hundred years later were scheduled to undergo demolition as part of a “slum clearance program.” But the citizens proved unwilling to let this particular house be destroyed, since it had briefly belonged to a favorite son of Indiana, or to his family. People mailed in donations as small as a dollar to the county historical society, a couple of area businesses pitched in, and a government grant came through. Finally, moving day arrived: June 5, 1963. The number-one song on the radio was “It’s My Party” by Lesley Gore, a first big American hit for a young producer named Quincy Jones. In Terre Haute, a reporter watched workmen wrap the two-story Federal house in “cables and metal strapping, as though it were a large box.” A crowd cheered. A new foundation waited at the park, where, fifty-three years later, a person can still visit.

Look up from the floor where he’s sprawled in his rag diaper with his crude toys at the family as it existed at the start of the 1860s. The boy’s mother, Sarah Maria, had grown up in Ohio, but her parents were Pennsylvania Dutch, that term “Dutch” being in this case not our surviving word meaning Hollanders but a corruption of “Deutsch”—Germans who had left the homeland, settling among their own far-flung people in Pennsylvania’s evangelical townships. Pennsylvania, founded by early Quakers, had always been friendly to breakaway sects. Moravians, Dunkards, Mennonites—the family belonged to all three, at different times. But her parents had met among the Moravians, radical Pietists from Central Europe and Saxony. By the testimony of Sarah’s daughters, she carried that mystical streak all her life. Much good in her, mixed with coldness. Considered a beauty in youth, in late-life pictures she looks out through a pleasant, round, half-smiling face. Now she is working “for fifty cents a day for Wabash avenue merchants” to make “miserably small payments” on the house. Her parents have disowned her for marrying a Catholic. There he stands, beside her, towering over the fat little boy, who later remembers him as “a religious fanatic.” He was German-born, from a place called Mayen, a small walled city in the west. When Indiana census takers came around, he identified himself as Prussian. A fiercely hard worker but contentious. The family never starved but was always poor while he ran it. The Civil War ended, and less than a year later, a board fell onto his head at the mill. After that he was thought somewhat simple-minded. “The old tyrant wore earrings and behaved like a cruel gypsy,” according to one who had known the boy. “He beat them unreasonably and made of their home a kind of noisy sepulcher.”

The boy already had a younger brother, Marcus Romanus, just a year old, and before these two, there had been three other sons, but all had died as infants. For this Sarah blamed herself. One night, in the exhaustion of young motherhood that runs to madness, she had wished herself free of the burden. Shortly after that, she saw three glowing orbs float past in a field (possibly ball-lightning, which occurs for unknown reasons with some regularity in Kentucky and Indiana) and considered it an omen. When soon thereafter her three boys died in just two years’ time, she viewed it as a fulfillment. Weeping by the third grave, she swore to God that if he would send her more babies, even as many as ten, she would never again indulge such dark and selfish thoughts. God sent her ten more exactly, boys and girls, and all of them lived. The ninth became the naturalist novelist Theodore Dreiser and changed the course of American literature, but that great and tormented man’s birth remains a decade off. The one who concerns us now is this little strapping round comedian, whom the sisters, when they arrive, will nickname Pudley. His real name, or the name we know him by, is Paul Dresser. He will grow into one of the fattest men in America, and for a time its most successful songwriter.

Paul loved his mother to the point of awe. His entire songbook is shot through with his feelings for her. When dismissive twentieth-century critics referred to the pop music of the 1890s as “mother songs,” they were thinking mainly of Dresser. He had used the phrase himself with pride. In his hands, it became a thriving genre and helped bring about the creation, two years after his death, of Mother’s Day. His first attempt in this line was, “I Believe It, For My Mother Told Me So,” which may be read as a coded rebuke to his brain-damaged but extremely devout father. There followed: “The Blind Mother,” “My Mother Taught me How to Pray,” “Just to See Mother’s Face Once Again,” “We Fight Tomorrow Mother,” “Your God Comes First, Your Country Next, Then Mother Dear,” and “Mother Will You Stand By Me?”

That’s a smattering. The mother of all his mother songs was “Your Mother Wants You Home, Lad, And She Wants You Mighty Bad,” which sold as sheet music and in two surviving recorded versions. For the first, the inventor Emile Berliner, who created disc records, recruited a manager at one of his stores (a Canadian baritone named Robert Price) to do a vocal sometime around 1900. You can hear the other version on a Monarch disc, also from around the turn of the century, as sung by the wildly popular countertenor Richard José, a Cornishman.Other of Dresser’s mother songs passed through the membrane, as it were, into the recording era. They are not easy to enjoy, unless one has an interest in the obscure. But they bear witness to the scope of the Mother phenomenon, over which he presided. There is, in the end, no way to know whether Dresser was truly fixated on his own mother, on Sarah, or if he’d simply realized that people went in for this material. One suspects a mixture. Theodore Dreiser later wrote that, to the day of her death, Sarah had remained for Paul “truly his uppermost thought.”

The pocket-biographical line is that Paul Dresser ‘changed his name’ from Dreiser, which it had been at birth, but that’s putting a complicated problem in a very simplistic way. Nobody, it seems, could ever decide how to spell the family name. Even back in Germany, it had been written several different ways (Dreysers, Dreeser, etc.), and the first time the boy’s name appears in print, in the 1860 census, it’s spelled Dresser, just as he later took to writing it. At least a few local businessmen knew them as the Dressers. It seems truest to say that anyone born into that family had surname options. Certainly, though, in the end, there was a difference. The rest of the family settled on Dreiser, and he went with Dresser. It helped that the variant sounded less German, because if ever a man was American, it was Paul Dresser.


Paul Dresser, Popular American Composers, edited by Frank L. Boyden, 1902, Harvard College Library.


The outlines of his life are well-drawn by the Hoosier music historian Clayton W. Henderson in the only real biography of Dresser, On the Banks of the Wabash (Indiana Historical Society Press, 2003.) Not surprisingly, the most vivid writing on him comes from his younger brother Theodore, in particular the essay “My Brother Paul,” from Twelve Men, as well as the many brilliant pages concerning him in the 1931 memoir Dawn. Dresser called Theodore “Thee,” pronouncing it like the beginning of “thief.” Thee seems to have worshipped and loathed his famous fat brother in equal measure, to have watched him at times through one eye of envy and one of contempt, but generally Dreiser wrote about him with more love than hate:

As I look back now on my life, I realize quite clearly that of all the members of my family, subsequent to my mother’s death, the only one who truly understood me, or, better yet, sympathized with my intellectual and artistic point of view, was, strange as it may seem, this same Paul, my dearest brother. Not that he was in any way fitted intellectually or otherwise to enjoy high forms of art and learning and so guide me, or that he understood, even in later years (long after I had written “Sister Carrie,” for instance), what it was that I was attempting to do; he never did. . . . As far as I could make out—and I say this in no lofty, condescending spirit, by any means—he was entirely full of simple, middle-class romance, middle-class humor, middle-class tenderness and middle-class grossness, all of which I am very free to say early disarmed and won me completely and kept me so much his debtor that I should hesitate to try to acknowledge or explain all that he did for or meant to me.

Dresser repeatedly played the part in the novelist’s life of a savior who materialized at dramatic moments and vanished for years. This was the first impression of him that Dreiser received: the gigantic eldest brother pulling up in a carriage to their overcrowded Indiana home, his somehow pornographically ample body stuffed into a tight fur coat, arms spilling presents, a different woman behind him each time. Later, too, when Thee himself had left home and moved to the city, Dresser could be counted on to lift him out of depressions and slide him cash when he was broke, or to quietly place opportunities in his way. This brother could not have differed more perfectly from the depressed and mentally compromised father. For the younger Dreiser, there seems to have been a transference of filial feeling commingled with the resentment that such a displacement can breed.

When Paul was four or five, and Thee still hadn’t been born, the family moved south to Sullivan, Indiana, where the father worked at a woolen mill. Dresser grew up there mainly and had some good years, despite the beatings. He evolved into a long-haired midwestern rapscallion, forever in trouble at school but beloved by teachers, gawking at minstrels on the street corner with penny candy in his mouth. He sold snacks on trains. He started out loving food, music, and sex, and never really wavered. When he was twelve, his father, fearing for the boy’s soul, sent him even farther south in Indiana, down toward New Albany and the Ohio River, to a Benedictine seminary called St. Meinrad’s, to train for the priesthood. Dresser soon ran away, essentially living on the street for a while and sleeping in fields. One night, an old black man took him in and gave him a blanket. Details like these come from a sheaf of penciled notes that Dreiser made at Dresser’s deathbed in 1906. There were brushes with the law, including a serious one, a burglary charge in Terre Haute. Dresser had broken into a liquor store and stolen some bottles and money. In fairness, he may have broken in just for the liquor and happened to notice the money sitting there. Whatever his reasons, he found himself in the county jail.

What saved him, or rather who, was a medicine-peddler named Charles Kelley, a Southern Indiana banjo-picker and sometime petty criminal. Dresser had picked up a little piano by then, and with his boisterous, manic charm persuaded Kelley they’d make a good team—Kelley with his banjo and Dresser playing a kind of portable pump-organ. You could hardly even call it a medicine show. They had no wagon. Kelley carried his oils in a case, or Dresser did. The partnership soured fast. Medicine men often had to get out of town in the night, as the hours went by and customers started realizing the stuff wasn’t real medicine. Kelley eventually did just this, making off with all of the money and leaving Dresser to face the sheriff, who threw the kid in jail to scare him. But Kelley left Dresser a gift. He had shown him his calling.

Dresser spent a decade rising and falling through the dimly lit circles of American popular entertainment as it took shape, or emerged in chaos, after the Civil War. First he linked up with some minstrels, the Lemon Brothers Combination. He pounded a bass drum. Then it was on to a more legitimate medicine show, a real one with a wagon this time, Dr. Hamlin’s Wizard Oil (basically grain alcohol with ammonia and camphor mixed in—no doubt folks did feel better at first). He sang and made faces. He was what they called in vaudeville an “eccentric comedian,” a “fun-maker.” A critic wrote that there seemed to be “a laugh in every portion of his anatomy and make-up.”

At some point in the late 1870s, Dresser started performing in “blackface specialties.” He darkened his face with burnt cork and lightened his lips with white greasepaint and came out doing stage-negro roles. He was billed as an “Ethiopian,” a word that at the time was quite elastic. It could refer to a white performer who pretended to be black, but it could also indicate a black performer in blackface (one of the only ways for blacks to make it onto white stages in the first place). It could also indicate an actual black performer, who was simply up there doing his or her thing, as when the champion cakewalker Columbus Bragg identified himself as an Ethiopian artist, or an early black newspaper in Texas called itself the Ethiopian Echo. Ethiopianism became an arena of blackness through which different kinds of bodies could move.

Most important in the present context, however, is what this decision to ‘black up’ meant for Dresser musically. It would have required him to pay attention to genuine African American styles, if he wasn’t already, and to pay greater attention if he was. He may have done this anyway, for pleasure, but because he sang in blackface, we know he did. White audiences came to blackface shows expecting mockery and cartoonishness, but they also (an expectation harder to understand) expected “authenticity.” They wanted fake blacks who reminded them as much as possible of the real thing. “The making up for Ethiopian business admits of very great variety,” cautioned Burton’s Amateur Actor in 1876, “and requires more care than it might be supposed. It is not as easy to act ‘nigger’ as many young Thespians imagine, as it needs a very close study of the action, voice and peculiarities of the genuine article.” When Dresser sang in that mode, the crowd wanted music that sounded like Southern blacks sounded, their “weird negro harmonies,” their “soul-stirring plantation melodies,” their “rude negro rhythms.” Or, to be more accurate, they wanted songs inflected by those things while remaining at bottom familiar and palatable. They wanted Elvis. Dresser did not sing “blues.” The word was still a few decades away from meaning anything specific, musically. But he and the bands that supported him were starting to let in the elements that would merge to define blues: dissonant notes and field-song refrains, ragtime syncopation, banjo and bones, the explicit affect of bawdy and moaning. Songwriters who worked in the blackface field were expected in their material not merely to evoke “humorous” racial types—though they did that too—but also to steal from the living music of blacks themselves. “If a sudden demand springs up for coon songs,” explained the Chicago Tribune, the composer “is likely to hie himself to ‘darkest Africa,’ along the State Street levee, where he can listen to the colored population and pick up as possible some striking or amusing phrase which will serve as a catch line for his new song.” It was, as we say today, “cultural appropriation,” even expropriation, but it was also obsession. Unwittingly, it preserved: early black sounds can be found in the coon-song sheet music, but you have to listen through a kind of frequency splitter, and can never be sure what you’re hearing.

Dresser wrote songs compulsively from childhood. He “was always composing verses and melodies” or stealing away to jot down lyrics. During his years on the road hawking Hamlin’s Wizard Oil he got more ambitious about it. He wrote some jingles for Hamlin’s people and self-published a collection of his own compositions titled the Paul Dresser Songster. The book is mentioned by Theodore Dreiser, who was shown it as a child and remembered it as “a slim, gaudy pamphlet,” though no copy can be traced. Dresser’s breakthrough came in 1880, with a tune called “Down Where the Cotton Blossoms Grow.” A music-publishing firm in Chicago put it out. He had written it two years earlier as “Down Where the Orange Blossoms Grow” and gave it to Primrose’s Minstrels, after which Mr. Primrose “sent the author a fine diamond ring as a token of his appreciation.” But the next year somebody else published a song with similar words, so Dresser changed it. Originality had not been its strength. He was on his way.

Just at that moment, in Richmond, Indiana, a mistaken news item made it seem that Dresser’s genius had perished in the bud. “Paul Dresser,” reads the unsigned piece, “the singer with the lightning liniment here last season, is dead. This will be sad sorrow to the admirers of ‘My Mary Ann.’”2 “Dresser didn’t sell the liniment,” a Richmond historian later remembered, “but he drew and held the crowds that congregated nightly by his singing and his funny sayings.” Sitting under a “huge maple” atop the “wonderfully and gorgeously painted liniment wagon,” Dresser had played for the people on an “old style ‘cottage organ . . . slightly asthmatic-toned.” His original songs “made an instant hit” and were “whistled by every boy” in town. Now, it seemed he was gone, cut off in his prime. The Cincinnati Daily Star published a follow-up piece, informing readers that the medicine man himself, the one who actually sold the liniment, had returned to Richmond to testify at a trial, and confirmed the sad news. “He attributes the death of Paul Dresser, the motto singer, who accompanied him on his travels, and whose singing was well-received, to heart disease.”

So, that was how he would be remembered. A motto singer: one who “warbled”—to quote a novelist of the 1870s named Charles Gayler—“twaddling sentiment set to bad music.” But the word “motto” has a double meaning there. It refers to the moral sententiousness of the material (“Work, Boys, Work, and Be Contented” was a classic), but at the same time to a lyrical characteristic of the songs, the emphasis on a “recurrent phrase” or repeated tagline. The term was already used this way in a classical context as a synonym for a musical motif. In popular “motto songs,” you had the verse, and then the motto, a line you repeated twice, by way of chorus.

A month later, the paper that had reported his death ran a retraction. “Paul Dresser, the well-known vocalist,” reads the correction, “turned up in Richmond this (Saturday) morning for service in the Huntington case. Paul, it will be remembered, was reported non est several weeks since, and our readers of course will be glad to hear of his return from ‘spiritual’ climes.”

No sooner had he been reborn than he caught a break. Rice & Hooley’s hired him—one of the big minstrel troupes on “the time,” as they called the different vaudeville circuits (hence the term “hit the big time,” which has nothing to do with time—there was also “the grind time”). Dresser joined on as an ‘end man,’ walking out after the variety acts to sing and do patter, banging a tambourine. Apparently he proved so good at it that he was almost immediately fired. From the St. Louis Globe-Democrat of 1882:

Paul Dresser, the eccentric Ethiopian comedian, who joined Rice & Hooley’s Minstrels at the People’s Theater last week and proved the best feature of the show, getting more applause and creating more laughter than anybody else in the company, left the organization last Saturday night, and is now playing in a variety theater at Peoria. Billy Rice, who is not funny himself, doesn’t appear to want anybody in his show who is any funnier, and therefore came to the conclusion that Dresser’s act would not suit the Rice & Hooley style of entertainment.

Dresser kept traveling, living on trains. He featured in countless forgotten casts, “all sorts of bum troupes,” in his words. Down the columns of small-town newspapers the names of short-famed outfits crawl through his résumé: the Fielding Variety Combination, the Joe Dowling Company, Baylies & Kennedy’s Bright Lights. Details start to blur. At one point he introduces “a negro specialty sketch” of his own creation, entitled “Swipes.” But something more serious was happening, too. His songwriting began to gain notice. In Cincinnati, “he made the hit of the bill with his new songs.”

One night during this period he made a side-trip home, to the Dreiser house in Terre Haute. Thee was ten. At that moment the family was especially poor. “I recall cornmeal mush eaten without milk because we had none,” Dreiser wrote a halfcentury later. Snow fell as Dresser approached the house. To Thee he shone in the doorway “like the sun, or a warm, cheering fire.” But the little boy impressed the bigger one, too. A friend of Dresser’s remembered that around this time in his life he had started talking about a younger brother, “and what a great man he was going to be some day.” Dresser stayed only a few hours on this visit. He had traveling yet to do that day. Evansville lay more than a hundred miles to the south, and he needed to see a woman there.

Over the years, there have been multiple stabs at establishing this woman’s identity. The cause of this unusual interest is that she’s known to have provided the inspiration for Sal in the classic “My Gal Sal,” which is one of the few Dresser songs you can still get people on the street to recognize (not the melody, maybe, but the title, a sad fact, given that the melody is truly delightful). It has been recorded hundreds of times and performed probably millions. Among the most interesting versions—one with no small relevance for this essay—is that done by Jelly Roll Morton for the Library of Congress in 1938. Alan Lomax was in the room, interviewing him on tape. “This was a real favorite in the city of New Orleans,” says Morton. “About when?” Lomax asks. “Well, about, uh, the years nineteen-six, nineteen-seven.” He starts performing a dreamy, drifty take. “They call her frivolous Sal . . . A peculiar sort of a gal . . . ” He croons it, emphasizing an old-fashioned quality. He goes on that way for a minute and a half. Then abruptly he changes it up. He syncopates the rhythm, and the song starts jumping, snapping its fingers. “This is my transformation,” Morton says as he plays. “[I was] one of the first to transform in the business. Of course I used to transform them all the same way.” The lyrics come back around, and we recognize the words, but they hardly seem to belong to the same tune—“They call her . . . just fri-vo-lous Sal.” He’s jazzing it, blueing it. The effect is instantaneous and thrilling.

Morton’s tutorial is a reminder that we mustn’t approach the old sheetmusic songs too rigidly, neither musicologically nor as persons interested in history. There was how a player piano would play it, and there was what happened in a musician’s hands. This sounds like a truism—Songs change over time!—but here the changes, the transformations, were part of the music’s birth and initial life, since the tune existed exclusively in live performance. The song factory was there—they even used the term—but it did not give you a recording, not yet. Instead, you got a recipe. Different interpretations have aged better than others. Listen to the Kansas-born Byron G. Harlan on the “original” hit recording of “My Gal Sal,” from 1907, and you’re listening to an artifact. Listen to Morton do it, and you can easily get why the tune proved as popular and enduring as it did, how it could lead to blisteringly good interpretations like those of the Mound City Blue Blowers (1929) and Kid Ory (1947 or ’48), survive to become a rock-and-roll number on The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet (1957), and lead finally to the Everly Brothers’ 1961 Nashville take, with Hank “Sugarfoot” Garland on murderous guitar.

“My Gal Sal,” written long after his Indiana days, was one of Dresser’s last few songs and became the biggest seller of his career, but he did not get to witness its success, or to reap its rewards and recover his fortune. He lived just long enough to see it catch on. His “kid sister,” Louise Dresser, debuted it on the stage. She wasn’t one of his biological sisters. He had adopted her, all but formally, in 1899, bestowing upon her his  professional name. (A vaudeville tradition, and older—the troupe was your family.) Her real name was Lulu Kerlin. She came from Evansville, and had grown up the daughter of a Jewish railroad engineer.Dresser remembered her father from his years riding Indiana trains. The man had died in a railway accident. People whispered that she was really Dresser’s love child, but there’s no reason to think so. It’s likelier she became his lover for a stretch. When they told her he’d died, she fainted and cancelled her engagement at Proctor’s 58th Street Theater for a week. She had performed “Sal” for the first time not long before, with Paul in the audience. Thanks to her he was able to hear, for at least one night, his old lover’s name reverberate in the music hall. “Face not so handsome, but eyes, don’t you know, / That shone just as bright as they did years ago.” Louise typically performed with “pickaninnies,” young blacks (real blacks, not whites in blackface), in this case boys who played string instruments.

Dresser’s aforementioned biographer, Clayton Henderson, makes a responsibly tentative, self-doubting case that Sal’s real-life model was a person named Minnie Holland, who kept one of Evansville’s “crack bawdy houses”—newspaper talk for high-class brothels—during the 1880s. Customers didn’t say “bawdy house,” or brothel. They said “bagnio,” mainly, or more rarely, “confectionary.” Citizens who disapproved would say “house of ill fame” or use the good old Anglo-Saxon whorehouse. Minnie owned a place on Third Avenue, near the river. It sounds surprising now, but Evansville had a thriving red-light district. It was an important river town on the Ohio, and in the late 1870s and early ’80s, Dresser ranked among the scarlet profession’s most eager devotees. If he were alive today, poor man, he’d be rotting in rehab for sex addiction. “I have never known a man more interested in women from the sex point of view,” wrote his brother, “nor one to whom women were more attracted.” Dreiser remembered that long after their Indiana days, when the two lived together in New York, Paul would wake up in the very late morning and march around the apartment naked, all three-hundred-plus pounds of him, with a towel draped over his erection. He must have been a blues-demolishing presence at the bagnio, bashing chords and “sporting,” dispensing loans he knew he’d never recover. Dresser was also a famously easy touch, which played no minor role in his undoing. Robbers were drawn to him, too. His girth and rich coats signaled abundance. In 1900, he took out a personal ad in a Chicago paper:

Paul Dresser, having arrived in this city, begs leave to call the attention of footpads, sandbaggers, and all-around crooks to that fact that he is stopping at the Auditorium Hotel, and has brought his watches, pins, watch chains, etc., with him. Parties will call and select what they like, instead of holding him up on the streets and scaring him to death.

The day of the infinitely word-searchable electronic newspaper database has of course dawned since Henderson did his research. One can steer one’s tunneling pincamera into strange worlds, even down the chimneys and through the keyholes of Evansville brothels. There we find a far more obvious candidate for “the real Sal” than any non-existent “Sallie Walker,” or even than the otherwise plausible Minnie Holland. She was called Sallie Davis, an Evansville madam who ran one of the fanciest places in town, described in the local papers as a “mansion.” Dreiser wrote that the place he saw was “very successful, even imposing.” He also remembered, albeit through the gauze of a boy’s eye, that the woman had appeared relatively young for a madam, perhaps in her late twenties when she first came into Paul’s life. This, too, fits Sallie Davis, who according to the 1880 census was born in Ireland in 1850.There even survives evidence, in the form of a police interview, that she was known around town as “Sal.” A cop slaps down a ten-dollar bill and says to the suspect, “Did you ever see that before?” The suspect, one Welpy, replies that he isn’t sure. “Well,” says the cop, “it’s one you spent at Sal Davis’s.”

Once you know she exists, you can follow her through the papers as an occasional blip. It’s fair to say she was a figure in the town. A robber is tracked down and arrested in “the mansion of Sallie Davis, on Division street where he was supposed to have a mistress.” Another night, one of her girls tries unsuccessfully to commit suicide: “A member of Sallie Davis’ household tried to make a trip through the dark portals yesterday by the morphine route. Her baggage wasn’t checked properly and her trip was consequently delayed.” At one point there arose some kind of organized community effort to drive her from the neighborhood.

A movement is on foot to “fire” Madame Sallie Davis, the keeper of a house of queer conformation on Division street . . . The indignant neighbors were to take final steps in the case with a Third street lawyer yesterday, but failed to put in an appearance. They are determined she shall go, however.

They seem to have succeeded, sort of—she relocated, but to a nicer house. They came after her again, passing a permanent injunction “against the occupancy, by Sallie Davis, a member of the demimonde, of the house No. 212 Lower First street.” She moved directly across the street, she and all her girls. She must have had a good lawyer—a client of hers, no doubt.

In 1880, a reporter paid her a visit, a female journalist who brought a male escort, for decorum’s sake more than safety’s. The woman spent a day dropping in on all the top Evansville madams, gathering their thoughts on a recent media scandal. Sarah Bernhardt, the French actress and former concubine known as the Divine Sarah, was on her first American tour. Word spread through the press that her son, Maurice, had been born outside of the marriage bond (the father, a Belgian prince, had actually wanted to marry Sarah, but his family intervened, and she agreed to dismiss him, at great emotional cost). Now she was traveling around, taking lovers, infuriatingly unashamed of her situation. Rich men had offered to marry her and adopt Maurice, but she refused them. The moral scolds went bananas. Now a local Evansville preacher, a Methodist named Igleheart, had denounced Bernhardt from the pulpit. He actually used the word “harlotry.” The “Courier Lady Reporter,” who withholds her own name in the piece, wants to know what the madams think about this, given they’ve seen that sort of thing. So sumptuously fine-grained is her description of the bagnio interior, it would be perverse not to reproduce the paragraph. It offers a chance to excavate, all but whole, a space that Dreiser moved through as a child on a highly significant day of his life, when he had been asked to run an errand, to deliver a package, and walked dreamily down a hallway at Sal’s, and glanced into a room, where a “yellow-haired siren” sat “half naked before her mirror.” He felt the first throb of sex in his body. Uncharacteristically euphemistical, he writes that, “In a flash, and without being told, a full appreciation of the utility of the male as such came to me.” The lady reporter approaches the house:

The ring of the door bell was answered by one of the “ladies.” The blinds covering the French plate glass of the front door were raised high enough for the person on the inside to see the applicant for admission. This was a sin, because it showed the purpose both of the visitor and the hostess, to deceive. The hall and staircase were elaborately furnished. Brussels carpet in the newest designs covered floor and stairway. The parlor, aside from the fact the richest material adorned the floor, presented a beautiful arrangement of furniture. The upholstering rivaled that which is used in the most fashionable circles of society. On the walls [missing text] which grace the walls of houses that society claims as part of its own. Birds sang in cages swung from the ceiling by cords as golden as their own plumage. Music was there to enchant, and flowers to perfume. Added to all these charms, there were women dressed in full evening costume, and with manners—at least simulating that of ladies who rule fashionable society. There was everything to charm even a woman. Every accessory to such comfort as home surroundings may give, seemed to be present. It was a palace, perhaps, a palace of sin; but there it was, to confront and confound the lady reporter who writes this.

The reporter requested admission to Sallie’s sanctum, where for all we know Dresser was at his ease, just as Dreiser would find him a couple of years later, “in the trousers of a light, summery suit, and a silk shirt, making his morning toilet.” Dresser more or less lived at Sal’s in his Evansville years. Granted, he stayed in the city only sporadically, since he never stopped traveling (not until he could no longer move his body), but when in town he treated Sal’s as home, and Sal as his wife. One day, Thee was coming down the sidewalk and an older boy started giving him grief about it, about the gossip (or known fact, rather) that his brother lived with a madam in a “fast house down on the waterfront.” Thee pretended ignorance, but the bully wasn’t fooled. “You ask your brother sometime,” he said, “he’ll tell yuh. They say she’s stuck on him and he lives there.”

Sal may indeed have wanted to marry Dresser.  Why not? This charismatic, affectionate man, a rising star, a maker and loser and maker again of small fortunes, forgiving, openhanded. Dreiser tells us about the time his brother moved their whole family, or at least mother and children, to Evansville. Given that Dresser himself lived in Evansville only to the extent that he spent time at Sal’s place, he was essentially moving them closer to Sal. She started dropping in on them. Dreiser remembered her. He writes of her elegance and formality, and her unnaturally white face (the powder). She brought food, presents, money. She pretty much kept them alive for a stretch, or at least from malnutrition. Dreiser was never sure later if she had come at Dresser’s bidding or if the charity had been a way of tightening her hold on him. Both, no doubt. And more. Certainly feelings had grown up between the two that rose above the transactional. There’s a reason Dresser was thinking about her twenty-five years later.

When the reporter got inside, a butler told her that Sal was indisposed. One is allowed to come so close, but . . . the truth hides. Our reporter, however, is intrepid.

Miss Davis was sick abed, but the reporter, after considerable importunity, was escorted to her room. Miss Davis was in a high fever and under the treatment of Dr. Davidson, and not in a communicative mood. She approved the action of Miss Bernhardt, as stated in the newspapers, and although not a mother herself she would, under like conditions, act as she had done. Because of the condition of Miss Davis the lady reporter did not interrogate her more closely or at greater length.

The illness may have been syphilis-related. Dreiser speculated (in a sentence he never published, a rare moment of self-censorship) that Dresser had contracted the disease around this time. He also claimed that his brother had taken up with one of Sal’s younger girls at the bagnio, causing intense jealousy. It is perhaps the crisis in Dresser’s adult life. He and Sal broke off bitterly. Sal gave up the sporting life, or embraced it totally, and married a man who called himself Charles Hildebrand, real name (possibly) William Bucklin, a career criminal from Michigan who had lately become famous for renouncing crime. He traveled the country as “the Reformed Outlaw,” a temperance posterboy.  He published a book, the illustrations in which are probably drawn from his lecture. It is impossible to say if he really had lived an adventurous life, or if he was a pathological liar, or if the habit of lying had led to such an adventurous life that the strands could no longer be picked apart. Sallie was drawn, it seems, to personalities, entertainers, whose ambiguous social status could offer a beautiful and fallen woman a shot at reestablished social validity, a prospect Miss Bernhardt had recently and boldly demonstrated.

Sal sold her bagnio to one of the girls, who took over as madam, assuming the name Nellie Hunter. Sal rode off with Hildebrand, accompanying him on his lecture tour. She did not know, presumably, that he was already married (and had been for years) to a Richmond, Indiana woman—Berdena “Deanie” Miller. Deanie was the loyal wife who had supposedly saved him from the clutches of sin in the first place. But she had kicked him out for “cussedness,” a.k.a. violence. They had never divorced, however. For that matter, he had never reformed. Sal understood him, or thought she did. Sadly, she got sick and died just a few years later on the road in Troy, New York, in 1887. I cannot find where she is buried, not under any of her assumed names. Hildebrand came back to Evansville, where he got sick too. He died at the old bagnio, under Nellie Hunter’s care, and he lies in an unmarked plot at Oak Hill cemetery in Evansville.

When Sal died, she left considerable property, ownership of which passed to Hildebrand, at least in theory. The widow Deanie heard this somehow and came after the money. That is the last mention of Sal in the contemporary press, the news that Hildebrand’s first wife had lawyered up and was on her way to town. The next time Madam Sallie Davis impinged on the public consciousness, it was a quarter of a century later, and everyone was singing her name.


–Images from C.D. Hildebrand’s Eighteen Years Behind the Bars. In the middle is Hildebrand himself, handsome devil. He was the man who stole Sal.

But what of Dresser? What about the man as he was at the start of 1884, his career on its first plateau, about a year after he’d lost his Sal? This marks the beginning of the most obscure and awful phase in his life. Devastated by what he viewed as Sal’s “desertion” of him, regardless of whether his philandering had been to blame (since when do men regard scholastic trifles?), he had fallen in love with another woman—not Sal’s girl but a third person, a singer. This too went poorly. He may have been, and certainly believed himself to be, abandoned by all of the women in his life at once. With the exception of his perfect mother, whom he was supporting.

May Howard: that was her name, the singer. Born Mary Havill in Canada in about 1847. She was into her thirties when Dresser met her, though she tended to lie about her age by a decade, then two decades when she actually got old. She grew up fairly hard-bitten in Chicago. Her father George ran the roughest saloon in the city, Havill’s on Pacific Avenue. It shows up in the old newspapers on account of the fantastically violent fights that occurred there with some regularity. A single sentence from 1874 is enough to suggest the scene: “They got her down on the floor and were pounding her face out of all resemblance to humanity, while their ‘fellows’ stood by and prevented interference, when Mol Pitcher, another of the she-devils frequenting the place, drew a pocketknife and stabbed the prostrate woman about a dozen times in the face, shoulders, neck, and breast.” Havill later remade his reputation, this time as a prosperous real-estate man, but by then May had left home. She took with her a sister, Cora, who sang with her sometimes. Her brother, George, alias Harry Thorne, had grown up to be a bank-robber, and no small-time picklock, either—he was known as “one of the shrewdest criminals in America.” Her name came up at his trial. She herself seems to have worked as a prostitute for a while, or at least lived on the edges of that world. In 1881, she made the Chicago papers when a working girl called “Cranky Anne” threatened to cut her. May had given undue attention to the woman’s gambler boyfriend, or so the woman felt. Fighting over a client? The reporter paused to record that May was a girl known for showing a “rather giddy tenderness.”

It is possible that Dresser met May at the bagnio as a prostitute. Maybe she was the girl of Sal’s who distracted his heart from the (barely) older woman. Perhaps Sal introduced them and instantly regretted it. That would simplify matters, reduce the pool of heartbreakers down from three to two. The truth is, we know so little about this period. There survives no material evidence of the relationship between Dresser and Howard apart from the legend that grew up after he was dead. There is, for instance, no marriage certificate, although we believe they were married for a brief time in the mid-1880s and we do possess evidence that Howard got divorced from someone in about 1885. Not glibly did Henderson the biographer title his chapter on that time “The Mystery Years.” The whole story may be a kind of dream on the part of history.

May Howard is real enough. She embodied a certain ideal female type of the late nineteenth century proletariat. Small, dark, and curvy. In later years, when she and a subsequent husband formed their own burlesque troupe, she insisted that her performers weigh at least one hundred fifty pounds. This was not considered toward the heavy end—a similar show from around the same period was called Billy Watson’s Beef Trust. May had seen it all. Her first solo performance, in 1883 or so, took place in Deadwood, South Dakota.

Dresser fell hard for her. That’s pretty much all we know regarding the early stages of their affair. He may have helped her to make a kind of formal transition from the bagnio to the theater. At the very least, he helped her up the vaudeville rungs, or perhaps it’s truer to say they helped each other. His first real national hit, “The Letter That Never Came,” she “introduced,” or debuted on the stage. A big break for both of them. The cover of the sheet music offered the country a first look at May.


—May Howard on the cover of the sheet music for “The Letter That Never Came.”


Regarding the end of the Dresser-Howard liaison, we know a bit more, or at least have rumors to go on. It was said to have been ghastly: She got pregnant, had the child, and the baby died. In their shock and sadness, they started to fight. One or both of them developed an addiction to morphine and/or opium (readily available in medicine bottles like the ones Dresser had started out hawking). Dresser then began to manifest symptoms of syphilis. He became deeply depressed and grew hugely fat. Even by today’s corn-syrup standards he would be thought obese. A person who glimpsed him a bit later in the decade wrote that he was “as big as the side of a house.”

May left him. She married another man, a bandleader named Max Sturm. At least we believe it was Sturm. She married often during those years, and certain marriages lasted but weeks. The next man could have been Harry Morris, real name Heinrich Karl, a ‘German comedian’ (meaning a comedian who portrayed a clownish German character, though in this case the comedian was also German; Dresser could also ‘play German’ when needed). May went on to marry and divorce this Karl multiple times over the course of the man’s fairly short life. Probably, though, the man next in line after Dresser was this Sturm, who managed a vaudeville company. Doubtless he said he could make her big, and may have believed it, and may have done so—she did succeed brilliantly, after all, helped in no small part by the breakthrough song Dresser had given her. Sturm later screwed Dresser out of the royalties on that. (Unsupervised, Dresser tended to sign stupid contracts.)

A terrible moment in Indiana: there she goes, the second great love of his life, out the door just as Sal had gone a few years before. Sal had left him because of his relations with another woman, and now May was leaving him for another man—even the consolation of feeling himself wronged by the universe was denied him. A carriage came for May’s trunks. He lay on a bed in some brothel. Empty dope bottles stared at him. He was sick, and heartbroken, and grieving a lost child. He was himself a lost child, an enormous abandoned boy, lonely among well-wishers. Poor Pudley.

A night came when they expected him onstage, there in Evansville. The Apollo Theater had organized a benefit concert for an old friend of Dresser’s, a song-and-dance man named Morrissey. Dresser showed up. He chose not to stay at home. He walked out and bowed to the audience and made a weak-voiced apology. He did not feel up to performing, he said.

He drifted south. We have his own testimony on that. Much later, when he had surfaced again in Terre Haute, where he’d been born, a reporter stopped him on the street. Dresser started reminiscing about his variety-show days, saying he’d gone that route for a couple of years.

“And then?” asks the reporter.

“Then I got sick,” Dresser says. “I was sick for two years in the south.”

He said nothing more that day, not about the two years. But around the same time a different reporter found him in New York City, wandering in front of Dockstadter’s Theater at Broadway and Twenty-Ninth Street. The theater will close in a matter of months—its owner, the blackface minstrel Lew Dockstadter, is fantastically deep in debt—but no one knows that yet, just as no one knows that most of the block will burn in a couple of years, when a fire starts in the Fifth Avenue Theater and spreads.

The reporter asked about a new song. Dresser’s music was circulating again, and the quality had jumped markedly since the Lightning Liniment days. By the sound of things he’d been productive during those dark years in the South, or rather as he was coming out of them. Perhaps the songwriting itself had been the thread that led him back to life. The reporter wanted to know about the origins of the new songs. Where had they come from? Where do you get your inspiration, Paul?

“I was down in Petersburg, Va.,” Dresser says, “feeling very blue”:

It was raining. The hotel room in which I sat was gloomy. The furniture was old. The curtains were in shreds. The carpets were in shreds. The windows cracked and dirty. I felt blue: I had little money in my pockets. I felt devilishly blue and melancholy [text obscured] I left the room and went down stairs into the parlor [text obscured] was more cheery than my room, and in the corner of it stood an organ. I sat at that organ. I let my fingers run over the keys. My melancholy mixed with the music.

A whole cluster of Dresser tunes, none of which has lasted except in archival form (and barely that), hit the streets between 1886 and ’88. A few did well in the moment. All evidence suggests, however, that one stuck out undeniably. Nobody, after hearing it, could forget it. Even Dreiser, typically patronizing or outright mean on the subject of his brother’s music—though always loving him in spite of it, praising, in one magnificently passive-aggressive passage, the “accuracy with which” Dresser’s songs had “set forth the moods, the reactions, and the aspirations of the exceedingly humble, intellectually and emotionally”—even Thee makes semi-admiring mention of the song in Dawn. Remembering that his brother had once gone missing for awhile and had been “not always heard from,” Dreiser tells us he learned only afterward how Dresser had been “all but felled” by his “disastrous love life,” to the point of considering suicide: “[F]or a number of months [he] could barely endure this fleeting thing we call life.” He survived partly because he “embodied his bitterness,” in Dreiser’s words, “in a most melodramatic and yet somewhat arresting song which he titled ‘The Curse.’”

A strange thing occurs when you attempt to learn more about this elusive song, which roughly a quarter of a century later a pioneering black arts critic called “the first Blues song.” Searching the documents, you run into what could be called a chronological dissonance. Plenty of references to the song can be found for the very late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (within, say, twenty years of its publication in the late 1880s) and make plain two things: that it sold well, or at least got widely played and heard, and that it enjoyed a place of high esteem in the Dresser songbook. The Sunday Review in Minneapolis listed it among his most “popular hits” in 1895. The Plaindealer in Topeka, in 1899, not only called Dresser the best songwriter in America but emphatically stated that “The Curse” was his finest work. A year after that, in the Lexington Morning Herald, Dresser himself included “The Curse” among his “best known” numbers, and a 1902 book titled Popular American Composers claimed that “The Curse” is “selling to-day.” In 1904, two years before Dresser died, the Anaconda Standard in Montana reported that a local singer had “made her initial appearance last night in Paul Dresser’s famous song, ‘The Curse.’” That’s only a handful of examples. Point being, the song was famous, well known, popular and, according to Theodore Dreiser (who didn’t care for pop music), “arresting.” Many thousands of people knew it and found themselves moved or unnerved by it. The song has a power to intrigue us, in other words, apart from its having once been called “the first Blues song.” And yet next to no one has ever heard “The Curse,” or of it, not even among the dwindling number of souls who revere Dresser’s work and memory (or just dig the old music.) This for the simple reason that sometime around his death, in 1906, the song vanished. All but completely. It is not enough to say it was “lost” or “forgotten.” This is different. It was erased, in ways both deliberate and accidental, from history.

The first problem in finding “The Curse”—or “Curses” ans Columbus Bragg named it—is realizing that a problem exists. What happens when you go looking for a nineteenth century song called “Curses” by Paul Dresser is that you immediately think you’ve found it. By “Curses,” it seems, the critic Bragg must have meant a song with a somewhat similar title, “The Curse of the Dreamer,” which was published in 1899, at the peak of Dresser’s fame, about twenty years after he’d come to know May Howard. It is easy to find information on that song. It received a publicity push and loads of advertising. Plus the recording era had arrived by 1899. Two different singers did “The Curse of the Dreamer”—the Welsh baritone J. W. Myers and the Irish-American tenor Dan Quinn. Neither recording survives, and neither appears to have sold many copies, but their existence inevitably broadened the song’s cultural footprint. The Internet will assure you that, according to Billboard, “The Curse of the Dreamer” was the number-one single in the country the year it came out, but Billboard was not keeping sales records in 1899, and Phonoscope, a magazine that was keeping them, makes no mention of the song. The magazine does mention another Dresser piece, titled “A Dream of My Boyhood Days,” a song more typical of him, a bowl of cornmeal mush with much creamy milk, ending with worship of mother, this time carried to downright incestuous zones: she throws her arms around her darling boy and kisses him and say he’s her “first love” (no one had ever taken the mother-song form further).

Whether or not “The Curse of the Dreamer” made any kind of official hit list, it did okay. The two recordings were released, and the sheet music circulated, and people (not many but some) performed it at recitals in small towns, and a player-piano roll was punched, and famous singers were bribed to “introduce” the song in theaters, etc. The whole sales machine, the one we live under, hove into operation. In the case of “The Curse of the Dreamer,” there were even stereoscopic slides produced. These would have featured in a truly obscure subgenre of American entertainment that briefly flickered in the decades either side of 1900: the song-and-lantern show. It was the beginning of music videos in a more-than-superficial sense. You sat in a room and listened to a song, either live or on a gramophone, and as it played a projector beamed still images onto a wall. The images were designed to illustrate the song, its themes and scenes. Mainly these shows belong now to the Jurassic archaeology of “proto-cinema,” but they also overlapped for a short span with movies proper: an ad from a 1909 newspaper in South Dakota invites us to come see a “Motion Picture,” the ultra-lost Whistler’s Witless Wanderings, followed by an “Illustrated Song,” none other than the proto-blues song, “Gee! But I’ve Got the Blues”. The early white blues singer Marion Harris was described in 1927 as a “little slip of a girl who used to sing songs before romantically picturesque but badly painted stereopticon slides in Chicago in the days when the movies were housed in cheap ‘nickelodeons.’”

Twenty slides, an old sales catalogue informs us, were created for Dresser’s song. A Minnesota paper informed readers that the singer Nellie Carmen would appear in Duluth to “sing ‘The Curse of the Dreamer,’ the slides illustrating each scene.” No doubt a complete set lies on a shelf in a junk shop in Ohio somewhere, underneath the two recordings. For now we have a single picture. It was included in a Dresser anthology, The Songs of Paul Dresser, which Boni & Liveright published in 1927 (at Theodore Dreiser’s encouragement and with an introduction by him). The slide shows a man haunted by lost love, most literally.


—From The Songs of Paul Dresser, Boni & Liveright, New York, 1927, page 138. Collection of the author.


I was certain at once that “The Curse of the Dreamer” was the song Bragg had meant by “Curses” in his column. Most convincing of all were a small handful of newspaper items from somewhat later in the twentieth century (long after Dresser’s death) that seemed to say as much. Billboard, for instance, devoted a 1949 “Honor Roll of Popular Songwriters” column to Dresser. Listing “The Curse of the Dreamer” among his recordings, the writer adds, “At the century’s turn, the story was current in theatrical circles that Dresser sang this song to his ex-wife, May Howard, after she had deserted him and their baby in the hope of effecting a reconciliation.” I looked at the sheet music (Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington, has a digitized copy), and the lyrics, as Dreiser had warned, gave off a distinct bitterness, albeit a stagey one. “‘Tis ended, she’s gone / Forgive her, no never . . .” The general milieu of infidelity and abandonment matched. “Gone with another, / Forever and ever . . .” The singer then goes on to elaborate several rather formal and grammatically dubious curses: “Her heart shall ache, like an aspen quake . . .” Everything seemed right. I read the song and knew that in some cryptic way, on some strange and distant by-way of the blues narrative, I was beholding the egg and orb. Now I needed to hear it in order to know what Bragg the critic had noticed.

Doubts began there, with the hearing, first when a friend helped me run the sheet music through one of those decoding programs that can turn the pages into a synthesized song (a player piano version as played by the player-piano, but it lets you hear the melody), and then especially when I found online a used copy of an lp from the seventies that includes faithful reproductions of certain songs by Dresser and also Stephen Foster. A choral group in Rhode Island had put it out, under the witty title I Just Want To Go Back and Start the Whole Thing Over (a lesser-known song of Dresser’s). They included a rendition of “The Curse of the Dreamer.” But my reaction when, for the first time, all but trembling, I heard the song on a turntable, was one of intense boredom, such that I almost stood up to turn off a song that I had been trying to trace for two years. The song is bad. It goes on for seven minutes. It yearns to be an art song but never rises to the level, and it has nothing to say. Bitter? Yes, sure. And “sentimental,” another word Dreiser had used? Sentimentality, too, was present. But what about the all-important unexpected quality, that of being “arresting”? I strained my ears to no use. I recalled what Henderson the biographer had written about the song, that it was “pure melodrama and not very good melodrama,” and musically “not convincing,” and lyrically “forced and trite.” How could this be, though, given what we know of the song’s effect when first released, its underground fame and greatness? Most damningly, the lyrics, when read all the way through to the end, lead only to a disgraceful punch-pulling: the singer has just been dreaming. His love never left him; she’s here by his side.The lantern slide of his smiling realization must have been delightful. But it renders the song even more banal and meaningless, and not at all like one that a person would write from the slough of despond or in the depths of anything, or that would inspire or accrue dark legends. I heard no blues in it, not even by the most flexible and proto-bluesy of definitions. It was unsuccessful parlor music. Granted, it had sold pretty well. But I sensed mainly marketing there (Dresser happened to be a silent partner in the firm doing the pushing, Howley, Haviland, and Co.). Plus the song hadn’t lasted. The whole story suddenly made no sense. I had been prepared to hear almost anything but mediocrity. This confusion lasted for some time, maybe weeks. I reminded myself that tastes change and continued to research “The Curse of the Dreamer.” It was midstream of that follow-up reading that I encountered three illuminating sentences in a 1934 issue of the Indianapolis Star. The newspaper was excerpting a book by the music publisher Edward B. Marks, who had known Dresser. “He married May Howard, the burlesque queen,” Marks had written—or “told to” A.J. Liebling, of The New Yorker

and a child, now dead, was born of this union. Paul and May parted, and he wrote “The Curse,” supposed to have been inspired by his bitterness. He withdrew the song and rewrote it as “The Curse of the Dreamer,” with a happy ending, which was popular.

So there were two songs, two Curses. Was that why Bragg had written his title as “Curses,” with an “s”? No, surely he meant the one or the other. And surely it would be easier to mistake “The Curse” for “Curses” than “The Curse of the Dreamer” for “Curses.” And surely Bragg the critic would not have called that pabulum I had heard “the first Blues song.” Marks was saying that somewhere there existed another song, another Curse, hiding in the shadow of the better-known version. This earlier version had enjoyed a cult following, but Dresser (according to Marks in his memoir) had judged it too morbid to live. He “withdrew” it, meaning, presumably, that he stopped promoting and performing it or allowing it to be republished. And he went further. He substituted for it, in the marketplace and the public mind, a different, more socially acceptable song, a dream song. It had all been a dream. This process, I understood finally, had culminated in the Boni & Liveright songbook, or rather an odd discrepancy in that book. You have an introduction by Theodore Dreiser, who as we know wrote memorably about a Dresser song called “The Curse” and how it had stuck with him, yet when you turn to the table of contents for the songbook, no such title is there. Instead you have “The Curse of the Dreamer.” This was probably a more or less bibliographical mistake on the part of the book’s editors. Or they may simply not have been able to locate a copy of the older “Curse.” But the error had an unintended consequence. It perfected, in ways Dresser might never have thought to hope for, the substitution he had supposedly desired. People approaching the book naturally assumed (and still do) that “The Curse of the Dreamer” must be the song Theodore Dreiser had written about. Why on earth would they leave out the one song he said he liked? The Dresser songbook came out in 1927, and from that moment, it seems, the first Curse was effectively sealed away.

A disturbing thought ocurred—what if Dresser had somehow succeeded all the way? What if “The Curse,” the real Curse, was gone from the earth, such that no one would ever hear it again? The sheet music (I knew there were no recordings in this case) was proving hard to find. The music for “The Curse of the Dreamer” had surfaced relatively fast.

There was a reason for this difficulty, it turned out—apart from sheer rarity, for it was incredibly scarce, as could be predicted: the song was never printed on its own. It had appeared only in a paper booklet published in 1887 by the defunct Willis Woodward & Co., meaning it had come packaged with seven other Dresser songs, none especially catchy. On top of that, it was not the first song in the booklet, and so the booklet tended not to appear under the title of “The Curse.” The layers of hiddenness were becoming exhausting. But the Library of Congress did have a copy of the booklet, and when I opened it to look at “The Curse,” these four words popped out: “To Miss May Howard.”


—Sheet music for “The Curse” by Paul Dresser.


It is a profoundly weird and terrible song. Terrible in the sense of terror. Some might say in the other sense, too, but I would lean more toward Dreiser’s judgment: arresting. It begins as it could only begin, with an apparent mistake, a hidden letter. The line is supposed to be “It came at last,” but reads, “I came at last . . .”

I[t] came at last, a dream is o’er, you have broken every vow,
The babe that sleeps in yonder grave fails to bind us together now;
May the curse of misery follow thee, may your head with shame yet bow.
For as madly as I loved you once, so do I hate you now.
For as madly as I loved you once, so do I hate you now.

Here was no poeticized pain. The words gave off the seared-flesh of true brokenheartedness and its scarring resentments. It was like nothing I would expect to hear in 1887, not that I would know what to expect, but it would not be this. Not this violent and personal. I noticed the repeated line at the end of the verse. Dresser does the same thing in the chorus, or “refrain,” which is no less startling in the bleakness of its imagery and howl of its outraged tone:

So when the judgment day rolls ’round and you stand trembling there
I trust no baby face will greet you in your wild despair;
But I’ll be there to meet you, to tell you of a blow
That you so cruelly struck, and broke a heart, long, long ago;
My curse will follow thee.
My curse will follow thee.

I read in half-disbelief. Sweet, genial, loyal Paul, the “unregenerate sex enthusiast,” in another of Dreiser’s redolent captures. How could he have written these lines? Were they to have come from Dreiser himself, one would be less surprised. And dedicating the song to her like that, so openly. It was beyond ghastly. It was vicious. I hated it, while sensing and respecting its lurid power. No wonder Dresser had disavowed and withdrawn the song. There was bad magic in it. Well could one imagine people calling for it in saloons. Men calling for it. Men who were angry with women.

A musically gifted friend down the street helped me to reconstruct the song—to do (it seems odd to say, more than one hundred twenty-five years after “The Curse” was written) the first recording of it.6 Not an automated synth readout this time, but giving it some shape as a piece of music. Hearing the playback when we were finished, especially after having been immersed in the music of that period for several months, confirmed the impression given by the lyrics that the song was somehow—I have struggled for the right word—alien. Its modernism did not sound nineteenth century. Nor, however, did it sit comfortably in our own time, stylistically speaking. It was a freak. It possessed, I thought, the kind of strangeness that might have drawn the critic Bragg’s attention in 1914. I did not hear blues elements in the strict or formal sense. There are some notes that sound dissonant on purpose, in a way that may interest musicologists. There are the repeated lines—though not in the right place, for a standard blues—and a chorus line, “My curse will follow thee,” which hangs on a single droning melancholy note while the chords shift beneath it, very doomy. But one must also and again bear in mind that the song was interpreted as soon as it was touched. Pianists and organists did as Jelly Roll Morton would do: they transformed. The version my friend and I did is fairly “straight,” in terms of interpretation—the way we imagined Dresser doing it—but a performer with feel could probably find many opportunities for blues inflection in the score. At least I seemed to hear them.

Anyway, no one really knows what the song sounded like when Dresser himself played and sang it. He had plenty of exposure to early African American music, as much as any white musician of his era. Picture all of those years, decades, in medicine shows and backstage at small-town theaters, on the road, all of the mingling. There were, in addition, more direct and specific points of connection. In an account from around 1900, we find him paying a friendly visit to P. G. Lowery’s Band and Vaudeville Company, a black minstrel orchestra and stage show that at that time included Wilbur Sweatman, who was in the process of helping to invent jazz. Dresser hoped they would play his songs, and he later sent them some sheet music. On more than one occasion African American musicians did play Dresser songs, not for white audiences but among themselves, or to mixed-race crowds. Clearly the critic Bragg’s friend, singer William Abel, clearly wanted to do “The Curse” for the community benefit in Chicago that night in 1914. But interracial collaboration had taken place when Dresser was alive, too. Black vocal quartets trotted out his stuff sometimes. Intriguingly, a writer in the African American Seattle Republican, in 1903, made the assumption that Dresser was black, numbering him “[f]oremost among the song writers of color,” and singling out “The Curse” as among the most “worthy productions from Mr. Dresser’s pen.”

There is a single description of Dresser himself performing “The Curse.” It was published just days after his death, as if it were a story someone had been waiting to tell. The account includes, unfortunately, no reference to any particular features of style or musical delivery. But for  other reasons it holds all sorts of fascination. The writer does not sign his or her name, claiming only to have overheard the tale:

A crowd of well known young men were seated in the Terre Haute House the other evening, and among the number were two of the actors from the Casino. Of course Terre Haute is proud of the fact that the composer of popular songs, Paul Dresser, is a Terre Hautean, and for that reason one of the boys mentioned the fact for the edification and instruction of the Thespians.

One of the actors leaned back in his chair, and lighting his cigar, said, “It is probably not generally known that big, fat, good-natured Paul Dresser is the hero of a romance, or rather the victim of a tragedy, which reads like the pages of a novel, but it is true, nevertheless. The bit of history from the life of Paul Dresser I am about to relate took place years ago before fame and fortune smiled upon him, and when he was struggling with cold critics and a colder world. He had written one or two popular songs which were more or less well received by the public, and things in general were beginning to assume a brighter tinge. At this point he married May Howard, the burlesque queen, and the sun of prosperity looked down on Paul Dresser’s ventures both marital and financial. An addition to the family arrived in the shape of a bouncing baby girl, and big-hearted Paul Dresser was the youngster’s veriest slave; he worship’d her not only with a father’s love but with a reverential homage, and to the point round which the world whirled and by which the planets and constellations shaped their course was the cosy cradle in which lay the golden-haired infant. Mrs. Dresser when she was married neither abandoned her stage name nor her profession, and still retained her position at the head of a burlesque troupe. It was there that she became infatuated with the manager, and nightly subjected to entreaties and cajolings, forgot her wifely vows and after the performance one evening the pair eloped. In a short and hasty note to her husband she explained what she had done and the missive was delivered to the wronged man in his desecrated home where he was seated beside the cradle of their little girl whose life was slowly ebbing, and whose tiny arms were upraised in supplication for the motherly caress the heartless mother was not there to give. The note was as a strong blow to the lonely man keeping vigil at the death-bed of the object of all his hopes and affection, and he sat as one stunned while seconds passed into minutes and minutes into hours. Finally when he had recovered it was to find the little form he loved so well growing stark and cold in the chill embrace of death. It was then that inspiration such as Paul Dresser has never had before nor since, and very probably never will have again, pour’d in upon his broken heart and blasted hopes, and caused the composition of the sweetest song he has ever poured forth—’The Curse.’ It was the best thing for the overwrought man that could have happened, and the intense, almost insane interest with which he worked upon the song throughout the remaining hours of the interminable night was the only thing which kept the grief and horror of it all from hurling reason from its throne and ending the career of one of the sweetest-voiced singers of the time . . .

He did not see his faithless wife for many months and finally she secured a divorce. It was one night when Tony Pastor’s theater in New York was crowded with an audience drawn there by curiosity from all quarters of the city. The performance was for some charitable object, and on the programme appeared the names of actors and actresses who were acknowledged leaders in their profession. Wedged in between the names of two of the best known professionals in New York City was the name of Paul Dresser. He was to sing one of his latest compositions. At the appointed time the composer appeared, and was greeted with round after round of applause by the immense audience. The orchestra played the prelude to his song and he commenced. He had not sung more than half of the first verse, until his attention was called to one of the proscenium boxes on his left in which sat May Howard and the man with whom she had fled two years before. They were evidently flushed with wine, for both jeered and laughed at the singer. Suddenly Dresser signaled the leader of the orchestra, and advancing to the edge of the stage, apologized for the interruption, and said that with the permission of the audience he would endeavor to sing a composition which he regarded as by far his best, and which he had in his dressing room. He sent for it, and passing the orchestra score down to the leader, sang the song which had welled from a broken heart at the side of a child’s deathbed. When beginning the first verse Dresser had been standing in the center of the stage, but when the verse drew to a close he was looking fixedly at the woman who had jeered but a moment before, but who was now as white as death, and he was but a few feet away. During the second stanza the singer regained his self-control, but the third verse saw him again singing directly to the occupants of the box as though the audience were miles away. He had reached the lines in the third verse, where after vividly describing the death of the little girl, he prayed that the curse of an outraged husband might follow the faithless woman through this world and the next. His song was not finished, for at this juncture there was a piercing scream which brought the audience to its feet, and May Howard was carried out insensible. For three weeks she tossed upon her bed in a New York hospital, attended by the soft-voiced, gentle Sisters of Charity.

There had been but a very few copies of the song placed upon the market, and after the occurrence at the theater the composer bought them all up. I have a copy at present in my trunk, and if I could not get another, its weight in gold could not buy it. That’s what I think of the song.


—Tony Pastor’s Theatre in 1895 at the same 14th Street location where Dresser sang “The Curse” to May Howard in 1887. Photo from the NYPL.


One hardly wishes to sully those paragraphs with gloss, or to follow them on stage at all. Are they ‘true’? We are beyond such questions.

The third verse, yes. The strangest. The worst.

By the memory of the babe you loved, you swore that you loved me.
My fondest wish is that this curse will always follow thee;
When you appear on that last great day, these words won’t be forgot.
May that babe look straight at you and say, oh! woman I know thee not.
May that babe look straight at you and say, oh! woman I know thee not.

“Woman, I know thee not.” It sounds like Jesus talking. There is a place in the Gospel of John where he says something similar, to his mother: “Woman, what have I to do with thee?” That’s the King James language. Dresser’s real source, or the unconscious echo that sounded in him, is more likely Shakespeare. Henry IV Part 2: the scene where Prince Hal, newly become King Henry, repudiates Falstaff, his fat old friend. “I know thee not, old man: fall to thy prayers.” Dresser has taken the line; he has given it to the fat men. Falstaff rises again as Jesus. He pronounces judgment in the afterlife. And mother is there. Mother is always there. She has come to the gates of hell. The baby appears before her, hovering, floating like a fetus. And it utters this terrible line, a curse indeed, “Woman, I know thee not.” Her own child. Hatred would be a balm in comparison. This is the outer dark. The creator of Mother Songs had written . . . this. Poor May. She had only been following her nature, her “giddy tenderness.”

The story about that night at Tony Pastor’s became a myth in the vaudeville world, one that lasted for decades. Whether it had begun as a myth didn’t matter. There were actual performances of that night. Reenactments. You could pay to see someone “do” the Curse story. The following advertisement appeared in Nevada, in the Tonopah Daily Bonanza, in 1918. The performer looks to have tinkered with certain details:

“The Curse,” Paul Dresser’s original denunciation of his wife, May Howard, who leaves him and later deserts her own child to starve on the streets of New York. Several years later Paul Dresser appears at a theatre in Louisville, sees his former wife in the stage box and composes on the spur of the moment his masterpiece, which causes his wife to be carried out in a fainting condition. Mr. Wilbur will endeavor to give you a correct imitation of Paul Dresser singing the curse at the first show at the Butler tonight.

A story like this, that is made of shadows, changes every time you sit down to it. Very recently—in the past week—I had been about to finish this essay. It had seemed there was nothing more to say about “The Curse,” short of a miracle, such as being able to summon Dresser’s presence through a spirit board. And one day I was able to do just that. I happened to look in a certain newspaper, or type a particular search term into a database for the first time, and a story surfaced, like a picture developing in photographic chemicals, from a paper in a tiny Illinois town, the Rock Island Argus. The year was 1902. By then Dresser had written (with some lyrical help from Dreiser) his classic, “On the Banks of the Wabash, Far Away.” He was rich. He was an American god of the gay nineties, the mauve decade. Now he had come to town, to Rock Island. “Mr. Dresser does not claim to be a singer,” said the newspaper. “The public, however, does not care so much to hear him sing as to see the composer of so many popular songs.” The reporter approaches him in awe, quizzing him about individual songs, their little histories. He wants to know about “The Curse,” which he calls Mr. Dresser’s “most pathetic song.” Would they be hearing it that night? Mr. Dresser, the interviewer tells us,

never sings “The Curse,” however, as he believes it is a hoodoo, having caused a murder in Boston. A second class vaudeville performer, named McKenna, after the theatre closed one night, sang the first verse in a saloon on Howard street. As he finished the first verse a man who had been seated at one of the tables implored McKenna to stop singing the song. Another drink was ordered by the vaudeville performer, and then upon request from the bartender he started in on the second verse. He never finished the song. The man who had returned to his seat at one of the tables sprang to his feet, drawing a revolver as he arose. He fired five shots at close range and the actor fell to the floor dead. Since that time Mr. Dresser has absolutely refused to sing “The Curse.”

Really? the reporter says. He doesn’t actually say that, not that he tells us, but the line of questioning suggests he felt something similar. Is that really the source of the “hoodoo”? Because there is this other story, Mr. Dresser, as you know, it “has been said” that “The Curse” was the “story of an unhappy marriage of its author,” and that there was this night at the theater, in New York or Louisville, and she was there, “seated near the stage”? But Dresser cuts him off.

“Mr. Dresser claims there is absolutely no foundation for that report.” The song had been composed “just as he was beginning to recover from the effects of drinking too heavily.”

Just a piece of rhythmical grumbling? I’m not sure I buy it. The song doesn’t sound that way. Plus the McKenna story sounds more made-up. Okay, as made-up. Either way, in the Boston papers and crime records from that period I find no reference to such a murder.

But there was some reason operating, though, beneath it all, some dread. He would not sing the song, even though people wanted to hear it.

I leave it to the reader. It is nice in this searchable day and age to find a riddle that probably can’t be solved, though one should never speak too soon.

Dresser ended his days in New York in the care of his sister. He titled his last song “The Judgment Is at Hand.” He was broke when he died. “My Gal Sal” was about to make his fortune again, but the fortune wouldn’t be his, or anyone’s—the family squabbled over it endlessly. Dreiser used some of the money to self-finance the second American publication of Sister Carrie, the republication (after the novel’s reputation had been made in England) that truly established his fame. He wrote his later novels at a desk made from one of Dresser’s pianos. He describes the evening Dresser died, of a brain hemorrhage. “When I arrived he was already cold in death, his soft hands folded over his chest, his face turned to one side on the pillow, that indescribable sweetness of expression about the eyes and mouth—the empty shell of the beetle. There were tears . . .”

Hundreds of obituaries and elegies were written. “He has come to be a factor in our daily life,” said the Times-Press in Middletown, New York, “so that we could not get rid of him if we had so desired.” But Dresser was not truly, properly eulogized until 1920 when the critic H. L. Mencken, who had been Dreiser’s great literary champion, filed a dispatch to the Baltimore Evening Sun from San Francisco, where Mencken was attending the Democratic national convention. He writes that after a rousing display of enthusiasm on the part of the crowd for Governor Al Smith of New York, “the leader of the convention band had a sudden inspiration,” and began playing pop tunes. “In five minutes the convention had been transformed into a carnival. In 10 minutes all politics were completely forgotten. In 15 minutes every delegate was on his legs, his voice raised in sentimental song.” Mencken had been especially struck, however, to notice “that every song save perhaps one was by one man, to wit, the late Paul Dresser.” He had witnessed, he realized, “a stupendous demonstration in honor of Dresser––an extraordinarily dramatic proof of the horse-power of his peculiar genius.”

Parting words, from the Morning Telegraph, New York City, 1923:

Do you remember May Howard, the wonder woman of burlesque over twenty-five years ago? I just received a letter from May . . . May states [that] herself and some friends drove out to visit the grave of Paul Dresser, who is buried by the side of his father and mother . . .

Coda: Ahjah Is Here


“Mr. William Abel, the race’s greatest descriptive singer, will sing the first Blues song, entitled ‘Curses,’ by Mr. Paul Dresser.” So wrote the critic Bragg in 1914, eight years after Dresser’s death. He is the one who sent us down this tunnel.

Bragg was advertising a benefit for himself. He needed money to restore his hearing. I am remembering now.

A write-up of the benefit ran afterward in the Defender, reporting that the night had been a grand success—“the biggest benefit ever given on the ‘stroll’ . . . the theater was packed and many were turned away.” The program, according to the paper, had been “rich and varied.” William Abel’s performance is not mentioned, but the moment must have come when he strode forward and did “The Curse.” One would give a lot to know what it sounded like when he sang it, and how it was played. Doubtless it had been transformed. “Before the last number,” reports the Defender, “Mr. Bragg was called upon for a speech. His heart was so heavy that he bursted into tears.”

The operation paid for by the proceeds was apparently a success, or the device they bought him worked, because he recovered enough of his powers that, two months after the benefit, he finally realized his wildest ambition, somehow succeeding in staging his masterwork—his precious Ahjah, the “Ethiopic Classic Drama” that told the true story of the black race. It ran for only one night, by design—too elaborate to do more than once, and too expensive—January 19, 1915, at the Institutional Church in Chicago. It cost twenty-five cents to get in.



The performance was reviewed in the Defender, and for once Bragg did not have to write his own publicity. His colleague, the brilliant and path-clearing black theater critic Tony Langston, wrote it for him, and the level of hyperbole suggests that, apart from sympathy for Bragg, Langston had been genuinely struck. “The success of the play was the biggest surprise ever witnessed in this city,” he wrote. “For months Mr. Bragg has been telling the readers of this city about the coming of ‘Ahjah,’” and Bragg had “proved Tuesday night that he was master of the play.” The review ends with Langston’s opinion that the show “ought be repeated in every church, for it is a moral sermon of an Ethiopian race.” His favorite part had been when a quartet sang, “Enter the Valley of Dreamland.”

Bragg died ten years after the show, in 1925. His obituary in the Defender, which is largely imaginary, or at least marvelous, does pause to note, tersely, that, “Rev. Bragg contributed several articles to The Chicago Defender a few years ago.”

1 It is unclear whether José’s name is to receive that accent over the “e.” His name was originally pronounced like “Joe’s” — he was Dickie Joe’s — but he somehow wound up in Nevada, where people noticed he looked vaguely Mexican, so he started going by Ricardo Juan José. He was a stout square-headed man who sang like an angelic child.

2 The title refers to the song “Sweet Mary Ann,” also known as “What an Education Has My Mary Ann,” said by scholars to have been written by a songwriting team in the 1870s, though it had appeared without authorship in a vaudeville songster of 1867. Who knows what’s true. That song was certainly in Dresser’s repertoire. I considered the possibility that “My Mary Ann” referred instead to the song of that title written in the 1850s by the Irish comic Barney Williams, a song that lasted forever — the folkies in Greenwich Village knew it, and Tom Paxton does a sublime version of it — but in a separate newspaper account, concerning Dresser’s Wizard Oil days, a writer refers to the song Dresser sang as “Mary Ann’s a Teacher in the Great Big Public School,” which is a line from “Sweet Mary Ann.” As for the Lightning Liniment — either Spalding’s or Coussen’s; there were two brands — let’s just say it was wizard oil for your skin.

3 On the subject of Jews and the blues: I wrote in the first part of this essay (Sewanee Review, Winter 2017) that the earliest known usage of the phrase “play the blues” could be found, obscured, in one of the critic Columbus Bragg’s Chicago Defender columns. Subsequent to the issue’s publication I found another, earlier instance, in the New York Clipper of October 25, 1913. It reads, “Fay Schram wishes it known that even if she does play the blues she is still Jewish. (Hebrew papers please copy.)” Schram is forgotten now but had some success as a singer in the nineteen-teens. Billboard described her as a “dainty little pianist.” Incidentally, this small find led to another, from still earlier, in the Indianapolis Freeman of January 18, 1913. The Louisiana-born songwriter Sidney L. Perrin describes a visiting musician, who is not named: “He sat on the piano stool and began to play the blues on the piano with one finger.”

4 Also born in that year was an Anni Brice, who shows up in the 1870 census, working as a servant at Coffey’s Hotel, near Spencer, Indiana. She may be our “Annie Brace,” the name Dreiser remembered. The name, age, and circumstances are close enough. Instead of Sallie Walker and Annie Brace, we would have Sallie Davis and Anni Brice. I suspect that’s right.

5 Billie Holiday did something similar in 1941, toward the end of her otherwise paralyzing recording of the famous “Hungarian suicide song,” also known as “Gloomy Sunday,” abruptly breaking off into a lilting lightweight rhythm and singing, “Dreaming, I was only dreaming.” Evidently it had been decided that the original was too depressing for prime time.

6 Nicholas Laudadio, who is also a professor of English at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. Our reconstruction of the song is mainly his work. I contributed a creaky vocal that, on the bright side, may be unintentionally authentic (check out Dan Quinn). The recording will, I hope, be made available online. At present it is the only way to hear “The Curse.”

John Jeremiah Sullivan was born in Louisville, Kentucky. He is a writer for the New York Times Magazine and an editor at the Paris Review.

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