Originally posted August 10, 2009:
It’s county fair time. All throughout Minnesota – throughout the United States, for that matter – late July and early August is the time for county fairs, those sweet and dusty remnants of a time when agriculture was one of this nation’s main businesses.
So the Texas Gal and I took a couple hours yesterday and wandered through the grounds of the Benton County Fair in Sauk Rapids, the smaller city just north of east St. Cloud. We walked through the midway, shaking our heads at invitations to throw darts or basketballs, or to play the pinball-style Pig Race. We also decided against any of the rides; none of them looked too stomach-churning, but we passed anyway.
We spent a few moments near the animal barns watching eleven- and twelve-year-old girls on horseback compete in barrel-racing. And we walked through the animal barns themselves, checking out the horses and cattle, the pigs, sheep, goats and llamas, the rabbits, geese, chickens, ducks and pigeons. We also spent some time in a couple of the less-aromatic buildings, looking at the photography, quilting and crochet work.
And we had lunch. At the fair’s main crossroads, there was a cluster of booths offering nearly any kind of food you could want, from plain burgers and ice cream cones to funnel cakes, deep-fried cheese curds, smoked turkey legs, barbecued ribs and more. We looked around and finally settled on a French fry stand. The Texas Gal had hers plain, while I had mine covered with cheese and sloppy joe filling.
We don’t get to the fair every year, even though it’s less than two miles away. Sometimes we just get distracted and forget about it, and other years, we end up with other events scheduled that week.
When I was a kid, however, I rarely missed the fair. I recall going with my family until I was maybe twelve. From then on, for the next six years or so, I went with Rick. Our main focus was the midway. We didn’t go on many rides, maybe the Tilt-A-Whirl or the Scrambler, but we wandered around, played a few games and looked for other kids we knew. We also found ourselves fascinated by the folks who worked the midway, the traveling carnies who went from fair to fair all summer long.
One year, when we were in our mid-teens (which means it could have been any year from 1967 through 1970; if I had to guess, I’d say 1968, when we were fourteen), we biked over to the fairgrounds on Thursday, the day before the fair opened. It was still a busy place. Farmers brought their animals and crops in for judging, as did kids who belonged to 4H. Crafters brought their projects. Merchants put together the commercial booths and displays. And down on the midway, rough-looking carnies put up tents, got the games running and assembled rides from the Ferris wheel on down.
We weren’t the only kids there that day. There were, I guess, about fifty kids, each one straddling a bicycle and watching as the carnies assembled the midway. It was hard work, and our attentions, I’m sure, didn’t make it any easier. After a while, one kid got too close to the work, and one of the carnies snarled at him, snapping off a line that I can still hear in my head: “Go home, kid, and tell your mother she wants ya!”
Rick and I didn’t get snarled at. We got hired. Sometime during that morning, we wandered by the dart game, and for some reason, we asked the guy if he needed any help. He eyed us skeptically, chewed his cheek and then nodded. “Not today,” he said, “but come back tomorrow, and you can blow balloons up for me.”
I had visions that evening of running out of breath blowing up balloons. But when we go to the fairgrounds the next day, I learned to my relief that we’d be using an air compressor, located in the back of the tent, behind the big dartboard. Our employer – I never knew his name and never thought to ask – showed us two chairs, the air compressor, two big empty boxes and a cartoon of balloons waiting for air.
Our job was to blow up balloons, tie them off and fill the two big empty boxes. For doing that, we’d get five or ten bucks, I don’t recall which. We sat on the chairs and got into a routine: Rick would fill the balloon with the compressor, and I’d carefully take it off the compressor’s nozzle and tie one knot in the neck. Into one of the two boxes it went, and by the time I had tossed the balloon into a box, Rick had another ready for me to grab and tie.
It all went pretty fast. In two, maybe three hours, we’d filled both boxes, and we reported back to the dart man. He gave us our money, and we headed off into the fairgrounds with a little bit of extra cash to spend.
A Six-Pack of Fairs
“Scarborough Fair/Canticle” by Simon & Garfunkel from Parsley, Sage, Rosemary & Thyme 
“County Fair” by Bruce Springsteen, recorded in California, released in 2003 on The Essential Bruce Springsteen 
“Renaissance Fair” by the Byrds from Younger Than Yesterday 
“Too Long At The Fair” by Bonnie Raitt from Give It Up 
“Roseville Fair” by Nanci Griffith from Once In A Very Blue Moon 
“The Fair Is Moving On” by Elvis Presley from Back In Memphis 
There is a temptation, given the monumental status of Simon & Garfunkel’s ”Scarborough Fair/Canticle,” to find a different song to lead off this selection, perhaps one of the several covers I have of the tune. That’s a temptation that arises frequently with well-known recordings, and my reaction to that internal censor often is – as it is today – “Then let’s remind everyone why the song has that monumental status.” When two alternate versions of the song were used in the soundtrack for the film The Graduate in 1968, Columbia released as a single the original 1966 version from Parsley, Sage, Rosemary & Thyme (at least, I believe it was the original version). As a single, “Scarborough Fair/Canticle” spent nine weeks in the Top 40, peaking at No. 11. As a cultural artifact, it seemed to be omnipresent during that spring of 1968, nearly as omnipresent as the duo’s “Mrs. Robinson.”
Springsteen’s “County Fair” was included on the bonus CD that came with the 2003 anthology The Essential Bruce Springsteen. In the notes to the CD set, Springsteen simply labels the song a “portrait of an end-of-summer fair on the outskirts of town.” He goes on: “It’s from a collection of acoustic songs I cut shortly after the ‘Nebraska’ album in California in ’83.” The lyrics are spare, which fits in with Springsteen’s other work at the time. I love the name of the band that’s playing the fair: James Young and the Immortal Ones.
The Byrds’ “Renaissance Fair” was co-written by Roger McGuinn and David Crosby, and has a good dose of Crosby’s impressionistic approach to songwriting:
I smell cinnamon and spices
I hear music everywhere
All around kaleidoscope of color
I think that maybe I'm dreaming...
In less than two minutes, the song does its work: It pulls the listener – this listener, anyway – out of humdrum twenty-first century America to a moment when neither place nor time are specified (though with the song’s title, one wonders about, say, fifteenth century Florence). It’s an easy song to get lost in.
Give It Up was Bonnie Raitt’s second album, and it held – notes All-Music Guide – to an “engaging blend of folk, blues, R&B, and Californian soft rock.” “Too Long At The Fair” fits snugly into that mix. An oddity: The song’s title was listed on the 1972 record jacket as “Stayed Too Long At The Fair,” with the more familiar title printed on the record label. The website of composer Joell Zoss calls the song “Too Long At The Fair.” I’ve never seen the CD package, so I’ll assume – I would hope, anyway – that the correct song title now appears on the label.
“Roseville Fair” shows Nanci Griffith doing what she did best during the early years of her career: Country-based folk and pop. Her version of Bill Staines’ tune is one of the highlights of Once In A Very Blue Moon, her third album.
“The Fair Is Moving On” is one of the tracks that Elvis Presley recorded during his 1969 sessions in Memphis. Though not as gripping as other tracks that came out of those sessions – “True Love Travels On A Gravel Road,” “Suspicious Minds,” “Only The Strong Survive” and more – it’s nevertheless a strong performance in its own right. I pulled the track from a two-CD package titled Suspicious Minds and subtitled The Memphis 1969 Anthology. If I’m tracking things correctly, this was the version of “The Fair Is Moving On” that ended up on a 1970 LP titled Back In Memphis.