On Wisconsin: another lost Bob Dylan lyric is reworked.

By Tony Attwood

First off, let me reiterate – I’m an English guy who has visited the USA many times, but don’t consider myself to be immersed in its history and traditions.   I do my best, but the basic fact is I am neither an American, nor an academic student of American culture, politics and traditions.  So I might be getting some of this wrong.

But in essence I think “On, Wisconsin” is the “state song” – if that is the correct term – of the American state.  That is not the song under discussion here (obviously) but just for clarity here is what I think is an official, or official-style version of the piece.

OK, now having got that noted, there is a song by Trapper Schoepp with the same title, the melody of which has a slight resemblance to the melody of the anthem (if that is the right word) above.  And it has lyrics written in part or full by Bob Dylan.

The Dylan lyrics come from one of Dylan’s notebooks – a notebook of the type that was used for the New Basement Tapes series.

These lines which consist of three verses have the same title as the state song, including the comma, and were written in 1961, so not too long after he first signed for Columbia.  Apparently the lyrics in their original form were offered at auction in 2017, but then were sold privately.  However Trapper Schoepp saw the lyrics and then created the song, with a reference back to the state anthem.

Speaking of this he said, “I imagined this drifter being rocked to sleep in a train car to this three-four waltz rhythm.   And he’s just hearing this song in his head ‘On, Wisconsin’ that’s bringing him back home.

“The words are playful and bring to mind some early Woody Guthrie lyrics and other folk songs Dylan might have been listening to in his early 20s.  I have to give a nod to Quinn Scharber, who played the clean jazzy lead guitar parts, which puts the song in the ’50s ballad territory.”

There is on line a copy of the notebook lyrics – reproduced here.   I’m sorry they are not clear – that is the best I can do with my limited technical ability.

Schoepp then recorded the song and forwarded it to Bob Dylan’s publishing company.  He reports what happened then as…

“So I’m laying in bed one night, and my manager sends me an email that simply reads, ‘Dylan has it now.’ I immediately got pretty excited about that.”

The management team had, it seems, given the ok to the song and forwarded to Bob for final approval.  He gave it meaning the record could be released as a co-written song.

It now appears on Primetime Illusion – an album that focuses on modern city life.

Here’s a live version with a spoken introduction about the origins.

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  1. It’s a lovely little track. Great lyrics but I imagine Dylan would have presented it much differently for some reason. Here is Dylan’s lyric in full:

    Wisconson is the dairy state
    I guess you all know well
    I was in Wow Wow Toaster there
    The truth to you I’ll tell
    It’s milk & cheese & cream
    I’ve known ’em all my days
    I’m going back to my hometown I’m leaving right aways
    I’m a heading out Wisconson ways
    2000 miles to go
    Madison, Milwakee set’s my heart aglow
    I’m a coming to that dairy state
    My heart’s a beating fast
    I’ll jerk my banjo gently there
    And twiddle my mustache
    There’s thoughts I left there long ago
    One a coming now it seems
    I’ll tune my banjo in the hills
    And feast on milk and cream
    And stamp my foot all thru the grass
    And never know a care
    My homes in Wow Wow Toaster
    And I’m a going there
    These people with you city ways
    Are driving me insane to drink
    My home’s in Wisconson it’s a better place I think
    I’ve been in California
    My home’s in Wisconson
    And I’m gonna own the town

  2. “On Wisconsin” is the state song, but it’s better known as the University of Wisconsin’s fight song. What a “fight song” is might take some explaining, but basically it’s what the band plays after a touchdown.

    I think what Schoepp did with the song is rather sweet, and it was a nice touch to add the “On Wisconsin” chorus–corny, but in a good way.

    What Dylan writes as “Wow Wow Toaster” is actually Wauwatosa, a suburb of Milwaukee. Presumably he didn’t actually think it was spelled that way, but didn’t have a clue how he should spell it. It’s one of those names that only the locals know how to spell (I’m not a local; I looked it up).

    It’s pretty broad-minded of a Minnesota kid to write an ode to Wisconsin. The two states aren’t exactly enemies; they’re more like brothers who hate being told how much they resemble each other. Two hundred miles may be a number he picked out of a hat, but it happens to be the distance to Wauwatosa from the Minnesota border, if you go by way of La Crosse, as someone coming from Minneapolis would. (Not from Hibbing, though.)

  3. Judging by the date at the top of the notebook page we can tell the exact date this was written!

    11/20/61 or 20/11/61 for us Brits!!

  4. Of course, Canadians use both systems. All very confusing. What if Dylan had written it on 11/12/61 ?

    Or a historical date is referred to as 10/11/12 ?

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