Quick link: click to hear The Clown’s Baby
This is about a Bob Dylan influence discovery that you’ll see helped shape a major Dylan composition. I hope you find this as intriguing as I do. There’s a lyric written by Margaret Vandergrift from as early as 1890 called The Clown’s Baby. When you read even just the first verse you will quickly see which song this helped inspire Dylan to write. Here are the first verses, side-by-side.
The Clown’s Baby
It was on the western frontier,–
The miners, rugged and brown,
Were gathered round the posters,
The circus had come to town!
The great tent shone in the darkness
Like a wonderful palace of light,
And rough men crowded the entrance,–
Shows didn’t come every night!
They’re selling postcards of the hanging
They’re painting the passports brown
The beauty parlor is filled with sailors
The circus is in town
Here comes the blind commissioner
They’ve got him in a trance
One hand is tied to the tight-rope walker
The other is in his pants
And the riot squad they’re restless
They need somewhere to go
As Lady and I look out tonight
From Desolation Row
There was no music set to the original poem in the book, and there was never any published recording other than when Dylan borrowed and reworked it on Desolation Row. You’ll see that the lines track really well to Dylan’s own music. One of the themes I see it shares with Dylan’s is that people are not how they may appear.
I first discovered this in the mid-nineties. I was fascinated by Dylan’s influences, and spent time in my city library thumbing through old folk lyric books. It was in that library I discovered John Lomax and his amazing Adventures of a Ballad Hunter.
I dug deeper into John Lomax’s material, and I came across his Songs Of The Cattle Trail And Cow Camp, and there I found The Clown’s Baby. It is credited to a Margaret Vandergrift, and the only thing I found outside of the words themselves is a small drawing in the attached illustrated edition of the Lomax book.
While searching online, I since found other printings, all apparently with identical wording, with one dating back to an 1890 publication. None have accompanying music, and I’ve been unsuccessful finding anyone who has made a recording. Late last year I set about to change that! I posted an appeal on Twitter for any musicians who might be interested in a Dylan project, and Peter Hayward, a multi-instrumentalist from Minneapolis, answered the call! It didn’t hurt this Dylan project that Peter spent his some of his formative years roughing it around Dinkytown and also enjoyed combing through old folk books in his library just like I did (the library bit, not Dinkytown!)
I am pleased to be able to share Peter’s recording (play at bandcamp). I’m hoping others will enjoy hearing this old, obscure lyric brought to life for the first time. After waiting so many years to hear it finally recorded, I really think Peter does the song justice and I’m very excited for others to hear it too.
I would love to hear any thoughts you may have on any of this. I feel like Margaret Vandergrift deserves some of the recognition she hasn’t gotten all these years!
Thanks for reading!