Dylan Obscuranti: Dusty old fairgrounds

By Tony Attwood

Updated 6 March with a third cover included – see below.

Dylan Obscuranti is an imaginary album consisting of both lesser known Dylan songs performed either by himself or other people, and re-worked versions of songs which take the song into somewhere completely different.

This is not the first Dylan album we have created.  Earlier we invented “Bob Dylan 1980” and we have also created “The Lost Album” which could have replaced “Down in the Groove” and (in our view) done a much better job of it!   Now I am at it again with Dylan Obscuranti.  You can hear the opening tracks on our You Tube channel or via the articles…

Track 9 is Dusty Old Fairgrounds, recorded on 12 April 1963.

This song was written in 1963 (the year that began with “Masters of War” as part of a “moving on” series of songs written one after the other:

  • Only a Hobo
  • Ramblin Down Thru the World
  • As I rode out one morning
  • Dusty Old Fairgrounds

 This track was apparently intended to appear on the album “Bob Dylan in Concert”, planned for release in 1964 but then seemingly cancelled.  It seemingly appeared on what is called the “hard-to-find 50th Anniversary Collection 1963′,” although I can’t verify that.

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.

I would single it out for inclusion in my make-believe Obscuranti album not just because it is not known by many Dylan fans, and not just because it is such an accomplished piece of writing, and such an accomplished performance of what is a long piece, but also because I fear some may have not bothered to find the piece given that Heylin described it as another “outlandish account of his youth.”

However there is nothing here to suggest that Bob is seriously suggesting that this is the life that he has had in the past.  What he does is the opposite of this: he gets inside the music and the lives of other people are presents their realities through song.

Heylin’s comment seems to me to be at the very heart of the misunderstandings many people have about Dylan, that the listener has to believe everything he writes and sings, and that all of his work has to be taken as a statement of things that have happened to Dylan or what he feels and believes is true.

It is a discussion I have been trying to raise in relation to songs like “Joey”.  I cannot see why Dylan is not allowed to be a writer of fiction, and a writer of contemporary folk songs that do what historic folk songs have done – that is to say they exaggerate the past.  He is not a historian and has never set himself out to be: he’s an entertainer who has moved through multiple forms of writing.

Besides, cartoonists can do it with illustrative art, why can’t we have a cartoonist musician?  (Hence the image chosen for the top of this little piece).

Indeed, if I may say so, the fault is not in Dylan, but in the critics who have utterly failed to understand the traditions of music that Bob Dylan draws upon.

Imagine if Dylan had sung “Nottamun Town” with verses such as

I rode a grey horse, a mule roany mare
Grey mane and grey tail, green striped on his back
Grey mane and grey tail, green striped on his back
There weren't a hair on her but what was coal black

She stood so still, She threw me to the dirt
She tore-a my hide, and she bruised my shirt
From saddle to stirrup I mounted again
And on my ten toes I rode over the plain

they would probably have complained that the lines didn’t make sense and besides Nottingham isn’t like this, oh and it isn’t clear if he is getting on or off the horse, running or riding over the plain and anyway he’s spelled the name wrong.

Folk music and blues music are the traditions that Bob’s music has emerged from and they are traditions that have nothing to do with exact references to how life is.   So 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 for whom the whole notion of fiction and exaggeration as an art form does not exist.

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.

Having published this Jochen has pointed out that a missed out another cover…

The other one I had found is on the album “No More, No Less”, by Blue Ash, released in 1973.  I am told that the album was re-released on CD by Collector’s Choice Music 2008.

Dusty Old Fairgrounds starts at 3 minutes 10 seconds

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

Meanwhile elsewhere

There are details of some of our more recent articles listed on our home page.  You’ll also find, at the top of the page, and index to some of our series established over the years.

If you have an article or an idea for an article which could be published on Untold Dylan, please do write to Tony@schools.co.uk with the details – or indeed the article itself.

We also have a very lively discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook with getting on for 10,000 members. Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link    And because we don’t do political debates on our Facebook group there is a separate group for debating Bob Dylan’s politics – Icicles Hanging Down



  1. The reason Heylin takes it as an account of Dylan’s youth is that it’s consistent with What Dylan himself, early in his career, said about his youth—those stories about running away from home as a teenager and traveling across the country. He made up a fictional biography for himself—there’s a short version of it in the liner notes to his first album—to go along with the persona he’d created, and wrote a number of songs that fit right in with that biography. This is one of them; others include “Long Time Gone” and “Ballad for a Friend.” He may not have claimed they were about his life, and by 1963 he may not have expected people to believe they were. By then he probably didn’t care much one way or the other. But Heylin isn’t misunderstanding anything here; he’s seeing this song as part of Dylan’s construction of the myth of Bob Dylan.

    It’s also, as you say, a fine representation of a way of life. It’s one of his very best early songs. It may start in wish projection, picturing the life he ought to have lived. But it goes far beyond that, to the kind of imaginative sympathy he managed in “North Country Blues” and “Hollis Brown.”

  2. ‘Dusty Old Fairgrounds’ is on TMQ vinyl bootleg “Seems Like A Freezeout” released in 1971

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