Dusty old fairgrounds: review of another rare Bob Dylan song we missed

By Tony Attwood

This is anothe song I’ve missed in putting together to directory of reviews of every Bob Dylan composition.  Here is the song in question (there is a fair bit of tuning up at the start – they didn’t have digital tuning in those days).

Heylin describes this as another “outlandish account of his youth”, but I see nothing in this to suggest that Dylan is trying to claim this is autobiographical.  Heylin to me seems to be one of those weird people who thinks that just because one writes a song or a poem or indeed a novel, then it has to be autobiographical.  It is as if the whole notion of fiction as an art form has passed him by.

In fact it is a fine representation of a way of life – not the daily 9 to 5 grind, but of travelling with the fair ground through all the different weathers and situations, living a life on the road – that image that has so engrossed Dylan across the years.

Here are the lyrics

Well, it’s all up from Florida at the start of the spring
The trucks and the trailers will be winding
Like a bullet we’ll shoot for the carnival route
We’re following them dusty old fairgrounds a-calling

From the Michigan mud past the Wisconsin sun
’Cross that Minnesota border, keep ’em scrambling
Through the clear county lakes and the lumberjack lands
We’re following them dusty old fairgrounds a-calling

Hit Fargo on the jump and down to Aberdeen
’Cross them old Black Hills, keep ’em rolling
Through the cow country towns and the sands of old Montana
We’re following them fairgrounds a-calling

As the white line on the highway sails under your wheels
I’ve gazed from the trailer window laughing
Oh, our clothes they was torn but the colors they was bright
Following them dusty old fairgrounds a-calling

It’s a-many a friend that follows the bend
The jugglers, the hustlers, the gamblers
Well, I’ve spent my time with the fortune-telling kind
Following them fairgrounds a-calling

Oh, it’s pound down the rails and it’s tie down the tents
Get that canvas flag a-flying
Well, let the caterpillars spin, let the Ferris wheel wind
Following them fairgrounds a-calling

Well, it’s roll into town straight to the fairgrounds
Just behind the posters that are hanging
And it’s fill up every space with a different kind of face
Following them fairgrounds a-calling

Get the dancing girls in front, get the gambling show behind
Hear that old music box a-banging
Hear them kids, faces, smiles, up and down the midway aisles
We’re following them fairgrounds a-calling

It’s a-drag it on down by the deadline in the town
Hit the old highway by the morning
And it’s ride yourself blind for the next town on time
Following them fairgrounds a-calling

As the harmonicas whined in the lonesome nighttime
Drinking red wine as we’re rolling
Many a turnin’ I turn, many a lesson I learn
From following them fairgrounds a-calling

And it’s roll back down to St. Petersburg
Tie down the trailers and camp ’em
And the money that we made will pay for the space
From following them dusty old fairgrounds a-calling

The song was played and recorded on 12 April 1963, and there are elements musically of a fast version of what became “Times they are a changing”, plus lots of other traditional style folk songs within the music.   This track was apparently intended to appear on the album “Bob Dylan in Concert”, planned for release in 1964 but then seemingly cancelled.  It apparently appeared on what is called the “hard-to-find 50th Anniversary Collection 1963′,” but I don’t have a copy because, well, it is so hard to find.

As for the lyrics – the song is pure description.  There is no message – it is totally a case of scene setting.   Haiku 61 came up with a good summary

Melancholy clowns
From one fairground to the next
Ride the blue highways.

There has however been one cover version of the song that I know of, on the album No More, No Less – the first album by  Blue Ash, released in 1973.  I am told that the album was re-released on CD by Collector’s Choice Music 2008.

I love this.  It’s probably just me, but it so takes me back to the music of the 70s that never made it onto radio stations, but could be found on obscure records.  If I’d found it upon its release, I would have played it all day and night.

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3 Responses to Dusty old fairgrounds: review of another rare Bob Dylan song we missed

  1. Morten Jonsson says:

    Actually, Heylin is right about this. He’s not just naively assuming that a song has to be autobiographical; Dylan really did use to tell people in those days that he had traveled with a carnival. See his radio interview with Cynthia Gooding in 1962, for instance: “I used to travel with the carnival. . . . I was with the carnival off and on, six years. . . . I was a clean-up boy. I used to be on the main line, on the ferris wheel.” It fits with the story of his life as told to Robert Shelton in 1961, and to Nat Hentoff in 1964, of how he’d run away from home numerous times and traveled around the the country. By that time his telling of it is a little perfunctory; by the time of his Playboy interview with Hentoff it’s become a joke (that wonderful “Carelessness. I lost my one true love” passage is a kind of parody of it). But in 1963, if people assumed the song was about his own experience, he wasn’t going to tell them otherwise. The same with another song from that time, “Long Time Gone” (“I remember when I’s travelin’ around with the carnival train”). A version of the carnival story pops up as late as 1978, when he introduces “Ballad of a Thin Man” on stage (“I was having breakfast with the bearded lady . . .”).

  2. Larry fyffe says:

    ‘Dusty Old Fair Grounds’ came out on side one of the TMQ Dylan vinyl bootleg of 1971: ‘Seems Like A Freeze Out’.

  3. J. O'Connell says:

    I’ve followed Bob from “Freewheelin” and was always aware of this song. I feel younger Dylan fans may not listen as it his “folk” period. I would contend that this is way beyond folk – “Americana” perhaps though even that sounds trite. Each line is a story on its own and the whole thing is wonderful and all hidden beneath the prosaic “Dusty Old Fairgrounds” title!

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