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The song peaked at No. 6 on the Billboard Hot 100 the week of April 22, 1978, making it Kansas's only top ten Billboard Hot 100 charting single. The 45-rpm single was certified Gold for sales of one million units by the RIAA shortly after the height of its popularity as a hit single. More than 25 years later, the RIAA certified Gold the digital download format of the song, Kansas' only single to do so certified as of September 17, 2008.
Background and writing
A last-minute addition to the track lineup for Point of Know Return, "Dust in the Wind" would also be its greatest success.
The guitar line for this song was written by Kerry Livgren as a finger exercise for learning fingerpicking. His wife, Vicci, heard what he was doing, remarked that the melody was nice, and encouraged him to write lyrics for it. Livgren was unsure whether his fellow band members would like it, since it was a departure from their signature style. After he played the demo for the band, there was a "stunned silence" and the band asked him, "Kerry, where has this been?"
I reflected on everything that is accomplished by man on earth, and I concluded:
Everything he has accomplished is futile -- like chasing the wind!
A meditation on mortality and the inevitability of death, the lyrical theme bears a striking resemblance to the well-known biblical passages Genesis 3:19 ("...for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.") and Ecclesiastes 3:20 (All go to one place. All are from the dust, and to dust all return.) as well as to the famous opening lines of the Japanese war epic The Tale of the Heike ("...the mighty fall at last, and they are as dust before the wind.") and from a book of Native American poetry, which includes the line "for all we are is dust in the wind."
Kansas's lyrics of "Nothing lasts forever but the Earth and Sky" also appear to be derived from The Bible, Ecclesiastes 1:4 ("Generations come and generations go, but the earth remains forever.)
"Dust in the Wind" was one of Kansas's first acoustic tracks; its slow melancholy melody and philosophical lyrics differ from their other hits such as "Carry On Wayward Son" and "Point of Know Return". The guitar track comes from two guitarists playing six-string guitars in unison, one in standard tuning and the other in Nashville tuning, to create a chimy sound similar to a twelve-string guitar. The instrumental bridge contains a distinctive melodic line and harmony for violin and viola.
In the 1989 movie, Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure, Bill and Ted encounter a language barrier when they meet the Greek philosopher, Socrates. With Bill's suggestion, Ted 'philosophises' that "All we are, is dust in the wind," while making pertinent gestures.
In the 1990s sci-fi fantasy TV series Highlander: The Series, in the Season Two episode "The Darkness", the song was played in the scene when Duncan MacLeod was remembering his times with his girlfriend, Tessa Noël, who died in the end of that episode. The song was also played in the Season Two episode "Unholy Alliance: Part Two", the scene when Duncan MacLeod returns to his barge in Paris, France.
^Kansas - We Knew It Was Going to Be a Hit, interview (posted to YouTube on January 28, 2015) Kerry Livgren tells the story of how Dust In The Wind was written, and how the band reacted to hearing it for the first time.