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Bob Dylan’s Ode To Wisconsin


By Dean Robbins | October 6, 2017

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Have you ever noticed that people rarely sing the lyrics to our state song, “On Wisconsin”? The tune is rousing, but the words sound hopelessly old-fashioned more than one  hundred years after they were written.

On, Wisconsin! On, Wisconsin!
Grand old Badger State!
We, thy loyal sons and daughters,
Hail thee, good and great!

Who would call Wisconsin “thee” in the 21st century? Who would earnestly refer to it as the “grand old Badger State”?

The lyricists for “On Wisconsin,” Charles Rosa and J.S. Hubbard, haven’t gone down in the annals of poetry. But what if a Nobel Prize-winner in literature had written a musical tribute to Wisconsin? And what if the lyrics had recently come to light after decades underground?

In 1961, a little-known, 20-year-old folksinger named Bob Dylan wrote out the words to a new song on a sheet of paper. It began, “Wisconsin is the dairy state/I guess you all know well/I was in Wow Wow Toaster there/The truth to you I’ll tell.”

Wisconsin residents will recognize that “Wow Wow Toaster” is Wauwatosa, which the song’s narrator calls home. He also gushes that Madison and Milwaukee set his heart aglow.

Indeed, the song is bursting with love for all things Wisconsin. The speaker dreams of feasting on our milk and cream. He imagines strumming his banjo and twiddling his mustache amid our beautiful hills.

Bob never recorded the song, and no music survives, so it’s hard to judge the tone. He’s undoubtedly poking fun at us, but I think he’s also expressing real affection for Wisconsin.

He grew up right next door, in Minnesota, and went to summer camp here in Webster. He lived in Madison in 1960, hoping to make a mark on the local folk scene with his acoustic guitar and unique vocal style. It didn’t work out, so he hitched a ride to New York City to seek his fortune.

We all know what happened next. Dylan became a leading figure in folk music, then in rock. Poetic masterpieces like “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” and “Like a Rolling Stone” made him the voice of a generation, and ultimately a Nobel laureate. How cool is it that this literary genius tried to capture Wisconsin in four charming verses?

Dylan long ago gave the lyric sheet to a friend, and it recently turned up at an auction house. I suggest that we dip into state revenues to buy it and commission a composer to set it to music.

Dylan’s ode wouldn’t have to replace “On Wisconsin.” It could simply be an alternative for those of us with a more playful view of our state.

As far as I’m concerned, you can have thy grand old Badger State. Bury my heart in Wow Wow Toaster.

Dean Robbins

Dean Robbins is a journalist and author based in Madison. He has won state and national awards for arts, features and news stories, and has contributed to magazines and newspapers around the country.
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2018-02-10T23:09:18+00:00 Tags: , |

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