We’re chronicling 100 days of Indy 500 history on #SpeedRead leading up to the historic 100th Running. With 60 days to go, IMS Historian Donald Davidson explains another cherished Indy 500 tradition.
It is understood that the song “Back Home Again in Indiana” (the correct title of which is merely “Indiana”) may have been heard at the track as early as 1919. Written just two years before that by Ballard MacDonald and James F. Hanley, it is reported to have been played in the closing stages of the “500” by a trackside brass band, while Crawfordsville, Indiana born Howdy Wilcox was on his way to victory.
“Indiana” was originally written as a rather jaunty, up-tempo number, and indeed became a great favorite of Dixieland jazz musicians in the 1930s, ’40s, etc. The first time it was actually sung on race morning was in 1946, performed about an hour before the start by James Melton of the New York Metropolitan Opera Company. Melton was in town with several antique automobiles, some of which were driven around the track on race morning. Track owner Tony Hulman also was a collector by this time, and it is believed that Melton was at the track as Hulman’s guest. As a little aside, a colleague of Melton’s who recently had left the New York Met was baritone John Gurney, the father of future Indianapolis 500 driver and car owner Dan Gurney, who at that time was barely in his teens.
The response to the sound of Melton’s glorious voice being heard over the public-address system was so overwhelmingly positive that he was invited back to perform it again in 1947. By 1949 or so, it was moved much closer to the start of the race, approximately where it is now, and was to be accompanied by the release of the balloons. Melton performed the song in most years between 1946 and 1954, but was unable to attend in some years due to scheduling conflicts. In 1949 and 1951, his place was taken by a well-known local singer, Frank Parrish, while another substitute was Morton Downey Sr. in 1952 and 1953.
For a number of years, the singer would always be somebody different, some of the better-known names being Dinah Shore, who sang it in 1955 (and remains to this date as the only female solo performer); actor Dennis Morgan in 1960; Mel Tormé in 1961; Vic Damone in 1964; Johnny Desmond in 1965; Ed Ames in 1966; and Peter Marshall of Hollywood Squares fame in 1979. Many people were surprised at Marshall being assigned, unaware that he was a “song-and-dance man” and having played the lead in several musicals on Broadway and in London’s West End. In most years, the singer was a last-minute surprise, as was the case with Jim Nabors in 1972. Unlike many of his predecessors, Nabors returned for the next several years, ultimately to miss only a handful until he announced that 2014 would be his last.