Champaign, Illinois: A Dylan song and a re-write of Desolation Row you ought to hear


By Tony Attwood

During the time when Bob Dylan was working with Johnny Cash and creating “Wanted Man” he also worked with Carl Perkins, one of the great, great rock n rollers, and the two co-wrote Champaign, Illinois.  (Both Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins were with Sun records and came up through the same musical traditions although each ended up with a different sound and style).

Carl Perkins was of course the composer of “Blue Suede Shoes” which was taken up by Elvis Presley, and became Sun Records first record to sell over 1 million copies.  Perkins and Cash also wrote the song “That’s Right” together.

So the guys all knew each other, but quite how Champaign Illinois got into the mix no one is quite certain, although the city does have its own claims to fame, being associated with such luminaries as Steve Chen and Jawed Karim who founded You Tube.  It is 135 miles south of Chicago with an estimated population was 84,513 people (in 2014).

But I am not sure the song registered highly in Bob’s memory banks because when he did play in the city 16 years after composing the piece, for a Farm Aid concert, he didn’t perform this song.  But then, Bob has a lot of songs to pick from.

How much of the song is Dylan and how much Perkins we don’t know but the opening sounds more Dylan than “Blue Suede Shoes” to me…

I got a woman in Morocco,
I got a woman in Spain,
Woman that’s done stole my heart,
She lives up in Champaign.

I say Champaign, Champaign, Illinois,
I certainly do enjoy Champaign, Illinois.

That chorus line makes me think that Illinois was chosen to rhyme with enjoy and then the guys searched out a city or town that could fit the line – maybe deliberately picking a location that some of us (especially those of us from beyond the US) might never have heard of. (No insult intended to Champaign – I am sure the residents of that city won’t have heard of the village of Great Oakley where I live, even though it is mentioned in the Domesday Book, published 1086 AD.  Although to be fair Champaign is a little larger if a little younger).

Here is the version from Carl Perkins – it appears the album “On Top” released in 1969, the year of the composition.

The melody is based around the classic 12 bar blues format but with an extended open chord to accommodate the lyrics, and it sounds to me the sort of melody that singers used to this style of music can improvise just by seeing the lyrics.  Which makes me suppose that it was the lyrics that Bob knocked out and gave to Mr Perkins – the melody doesn’t sound very Dylan to me at all.  And come to that nor does the bounce of the song (which is maybe why Bob didn’t try it when he played in Champaign.

But there is another song called Champaign Illinois which I discovered by chance while trying to do my usual bit of meandering research – and it has a very strong connection with Dylan.

Now I must make it clear I am not the first to travel this route.  The website Smile Politely got there long before me, and full credit to them.  I arrived late, having taken a long and winding route.

This second version comes from the album “The Grand Theatre, Volume One” which is the 8th album from the band Old 97s, and was released in October, 2010.  The song takes the melody of “Desolation Row” and makes it much more upbeat, adds new lyrics and has the title “Champaign Illinois”.   I must say I rather like this – it has no connection to the Dylan and Perkins song and I would probably never have come across it had it not been for the undertaking of this little of research – but I’m glad I found it.


The story that is reported is that the manager of the band knew Dylan’s management team and so via that were able to get a copy of a recording of the song to Bob.  Apparently Bob asked for a copy of the lyrics and then agreed to its release, and a 50/50 split in the royalties from the album.

There are those who would say that this song is part stolen, but the fact is Dylan gave permission, and perhaps we might also remember just how many times Bob has re-used the melodies of others.

Here are the lyrics

The bottom line’s been snorted
The bottom card’s been dealt
No one knows like you know right now
How truly bad it felt

All your life you wasted
On dreamin’ about the day
Worker bees kill off their queen
And carry all her eggs away

Oh, then if you die fearin’ God
And painfully employed
No, you will not go to Heaven
You’ll go to Champaign, Illinois

Up north in Chicago
Where booze makes no one blush
Memories come back to you
In a double Bourbon rush

Memories that aren’t all bad
And neither, my friend, are you
There is an argument there must be some Heaven meant
For hearts that are half true

Oh, and if you spend your whole life
Rollin’ horses into Troy
No, you will not go to heaven
You’ll go to Champaign, Illinois
No, you will not go to heaven
You’ll go to Champaign, Illinois

Roll on blacktop highway
Circles towards the sun
Springfield’s in the distance
And that’s the last big one

After that comes judgment
Oh, and judgment will be swift
You will be eliminated
But here’s a parting gift

Oh, if you die fearin’ God
And painfully employed
No, you will not go to Heaven
You’ll go to Champaign, Illinois
No, you will not go to heaven
You’ll go to Champaign, Illinois

No, you will not go to heaven
You’ll go to Champaign, Illinois

I hope you enjoyed that, and even if not, you can maybe imagine me playing it over and over looking out over the trees and fields in rural England, rather enjoying myself having found another interesting piece of Dylan I never knew existed.

Think there’s something missing or wrong with this review?

You are of course always welcome to write a comment below, but if you’d like to go further, you could write an alternative review – we’ve already published quite a few of these.  We try to avoid publishing reviews and comments that are rude or just criticisms of what is written elsewhere – but if you have a positive take on this song or any other Dylan song, and would like it considered for publication, please do email

What else is on the site

1: Over 490 reviews of Dylan songs.  There is an index to these in alphabetical order on the home page, and an index to the songs in the order they were written in the Chronology Pages.

2: The Chronology.  We’ve taken the songs we can find recordings of and put them in the order they were written (as far as possible) not in the order they appeared on albums.  The chronology is more or less complete and is now linked to all the reviews on the site.  We have also produced overviews of Dylan’s work year by year.     The index to the chronologies is here.

3: Bob Dylan’s themes.  We publish a wide range of articles about Bob Dylan and his compositions.  There is an index here.

4:   The Discussion Group    We now have a discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook.  Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link 

5:  Bob Dylan’s creativity.   We’re fascinated in taking the study of Dylan’s creative approach further.  The index is in Dylan’s Creativity.

6: You might also like: A classification of Bob Dylan’s songs and partial Index to Dylan’s Best Opening Lines and our articles on various writers’ lists of Dylan’s ten greatest songs.

And please do note   The Bob Dylan Project, which lists every Dylan song in alphabetical order, and has links to licensed recordings and performances by Dylan and by other artists, is starting to link back to our reviews



  1. Apparently, the song came about while the band were touring pre-fame days. As money was tight they travelled in separate cars rather than hire a tour bus. Given the lack of room the songwriter was unable to carry any instrument with him, so he would write lyrics to existing melodies as he was unable to play his guitar to compose the music whilst sitting in the car. Hence he composed the lyrics to the tune of Desolation Row…intending to compose his own music at a later date.

  2. Awfully late with this, but I hope someone can answer the question “Did Bob Dylan ever play on the campus of the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana?”
    I was a student at U of I ibn the Fall semester, 1961-1962 (got kicked out for not attending ROTC classes). I visited a hootenanny (so billed) on the U of I campus either late 1961 or early 1962. I clearly recall one of the solo musicians was a young man who played both guitar and harmonica and had the harmonica supported by a rig like the one Dylan uses. I don’t recall his songs or his vocal quality (he was one of a string of many performers) but always recall his image when hearing a Dylan song. Could it have been him?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *