Born in Terre Haute, Indiana into the Dreiser family, Paul Dresser's parents wanted him to become a Catholic priest and sent him to a Catholic seminary around the age of 12. Inspired by the bands and traveling musical groups that he encountered during his youth, Dresser already knew that he wanted to be a musician and rebelled against his parent's decision.
After about a year at the seminary, Dresser ran away with a traveling minstrel group and ended up back in his home town, working odd jobs until his father enrolled him in a new school: St. Bonaventure Lyceum academy in Terre Haute. Here, Dresser received piano lessons and finished his education. In the years after finishing school, Dresser ran into trouble with the law, again holding odd jobs and rebelling against his father. His father finally disowned him.
Dresser's musical career began when he joined a traveling minstrel friend and began touring Indiana. During this period, Dresser performed with several different groups in the midwest and achieved more and more popularity with his songs before moving to New York City in 1888.
While in New York City, Dresser began working for Willis Woodward and Company, which would later become part of Tin Pan Alley. During this time, Dresser continued traveling and performing, as well as writing songs. His songs gained in popularity, and Dresser started to know his way around the business world in New York.
In 1893, he partnered with two other business men to begin the publishing company Howley, Haviland & Co. (Dresser started as the silent partner). At this time, Dresser focused solely on composition and stopped traveling and performing. In 1901, the company changed their name to Howley, Haviland and Dresser, reflecting the popularity of Dresser's songs.
Dresser's most popular songs were written after he joined Howley and Haviland, most notably "On the Banks of the Wabash" (1897), which would become the state song of Indiana. "On the Banks of the Wabash" earned Dresser national fame, and he was compared with Stephen Foster. For more information about "On the Banks of the Wabash," visit the song page: "On the Banks of the Wabash."
Dresser wrote a few more popular songs, including "My Gal Sal," before his style of "weeping balladry" fell out of fashion. His publishing company failed in 1905, and Dresser died the next year, penniless.