Bob Dylan has had one hell of a life. Legend says that he was unruly from a young age, a trespasser with little time for authority. In the early days of his fame, Dylan told media outlets that he didn’t attend high school because he spent his youth travelling with the carnival. I’d be willing to bet that particular tale is an example of Dylan in the act of self-mythologisation. For one thing, we know that he graduated from his hometown high school, Hibbing High, in 1959, by which time he’d had the chance to join the Latin and Social Studies Societies.
But there are other indications that Dylan travelled with a carnival troupe for a time, including a mysterious song called ‘Won’t You Buy A Postcard’. It’s hard to tell if the song ever existed at all, really. We have no way of listening to it, and no lyrics have survived. All we know is that in 1962 Dylan talked about the song in some detail during a radio interview. Thanks to Blank On Blank – who discovered the recording while trawling through the Pacifica Radio archives – we’re able to hear Dylan talking to folk singer Cynthia Gooding about his time with the ‘freakshow’ and the cruelty the workers endured.
After discussing his early success on the Greenwich Village circuit, the songwriter begins tuning his guitar, all while explaining that despite his absence from high school everything worked out in the end. Twisting one of the pegs on his acoustic guitar, Dylan recalls: “I wrote a song once that I’m trying to find. It’s about this lady I knew in the carnival. It was… they had a freak show in it, all the midgets and all that kind of stuff. There’s one lady in there, really bad shape. Like, her skin had been all burned and she was a little baby, didn’t grow right, so she was like a freak.”
Dylan went on to express his sympathy for the show’s much-maligned attractions: “All these people would pay money to see. That really sort of got me. It’s a funny thing about them. I know how these people think. They want to sell you stuff, those spectators. Like they sell little cards of themselves for ten cents. They got a picture on it, and it’s got some story. Here they are on stage. They want to make you have two thoughts. They want to make you think that they don’t feel bad about themselves and also, they want to make you feel sorry for them. I always liked that, and I wrote a song for her. It was called, ‘Won’t you Buy a Postcard’. Can’t remember that one, though.”
Although we have no way of hearing ‘Won’t you Buy a Postcard’, it seems that, even at that early stage, Dylan understood that the best way of criticising established modes of thought was to fixate on a single person, action or idea and make it universal. If only we could hear that lost single, it would reveal so much about his songcraft.