Motor Racing and Music; Throughout the years it’s safe to say the two have never been the most natural of partners (we only need to ask Jacques Villeneuve and Lewis Hamilton for evidence of that), but such is the uniqueness of the Indianapolis 500 that music has helped as much as anything to add to the aura that surrounds the legendary Brickyard, and in today’s update we’ll be taking a look at how a Tin Pan Alley pop song became the unofficial anthem of the greatest spectacle in racing.
The origins of ‘Back Home Again In Indiana’ can be traced back to 1917, when the song writing duo Ballard McDonald and James F. Hanley composed the song with the intention of it being recorded by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band as a Jazz Standard. As was the style of the time, the song borrowed heavily from the 1897 ballad ‘On the Banks of the Wabash’ by Hoosier native Paul Dresser, most noticeably in the use of key words and phrases including ‘candlelight, sycamores and the new mowed hay, all of which featured prominently in ‘Back Home Again’s original recording.
The first evidence of Back Home Again being used at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway dates back to 1919, when a trackside brass band performed the song on the final laps as Hoosier native Howdy Wilcox circled his final laps of the circuit on his way to victory lane, but it wasn’t until 1946 that the song became a permanent fixture of the pre-race ceremonies of the speedway, a feat achieved albeit in somewhat accidental fashion. The 1946 Indianapolis 500 was the first to take place the ceasing of racing activities due to World War II, and to celebrate the reopening a lavish ceremony featuring a number of classic was organised prior to the start of that afternoon’s race. Most of the cars for the ceremony were supplied by the New York opera singer James Melton, and approximately 40 minutes before the start of the race Melton impulsively performed a version of Back Home Again over the pubic address system. The reaction to Melton’s stunt was unanimously positive, and the following year the 42 year old was asked back to the speedway to perform the song once again, this time however just prior to the command for drivers to start their engines for the race, a position in the ceremonies the song still holds to this day.
For the next 25 years the song was performed by some of the top music stars of the time, with Mel Tormé, Vic Damone, Dinah Shore, Ed Ames, Peter Marshall, Dennis Morgan and Johnny Desmond all taking turns at singing the anthem over the years. In 1972 the speedway turned to former actor turned balladeer Jim Nabors. The Hawaii native had become a breakout star thanks to his role as Gomer Pyle in the television series The Andy Griffith Show, with the success of the character soon leading Nabors to get his own spin=off series as well as his own variety show during the 1960s. Despite having the song lyrics written on his hand for that first recording, Nabors’ powerful baritone style won unanimous acclaim, turning the song into his signature track whilst also leading to a relationship between Nabors and the speedway that would last over 40 years.
Despite being based thousands of miles away from Indianapolis, Nabors conducted the pre-race ceremonies on almost a yearly basis, only missing out on seven occasions between 1972 and 2014, usually as a result of travel difficulties or illness during his later years. Such was his commitment to the ceremony that Nabors would often prepare multiple contingency plans in case his attendance at the speedway was put in jeopardy, most notably seen in 2012 when he performed the song via video link from his home in Hawaii after having a heart valve replacement.
After 42 years of service, and having just turned 83, Nabors announced his retirement from the 500’s pre-race ceremonies, performing the song one final time just prior to the start of the 2014 race. With a slight quiver in his voice, Nabors performed the song to his ever professional best, before joining Mari Hulman George to give the command for the drivers to start their engines, the first man outside of the Hulman family to do so since Wilbur Shaw back in 1954. In 2015 the role was taken over by the Indianapolis based acapella group Straight No Chaser, looking to establish an association with the similar to that earned by Nabors throughout the years.
Back Home Again may be a song about the Hoosier state, but it also has a sentimentality about it that extends well outside the state, and come the start of this year’s 500 mile event it’s safe that Indycar fans world-wide will find themselves longing for their Indiana home.
In today’s video we can’t choose anything else but Jim performing the song for the final time in 2014. Maybe not his strongest performance but certainly his most emotional:
In tomorrow’s update we look at a bizarre 500 accident that ironically doesn’t actually involve any race cars.