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.
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. However he did offer it to them, and the song was accepted and then recorded.
"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". A meditation on mortality and the inevitability of death, the lyrical theme bears a striking resemblance to the well-known biblical passage Genesis 3:19 ("...for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou 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."
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 film, 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.
It was featured in the 2003 movie Old School where it was sung by Will Ferrell's character at Blue's funeral, and at the end of the movie Blue sang the song while playing a piano in the sky.
The version by Spanish heavy metal band Mägo de Oz is called "Pensando en ti" (Thinking about you). It was performed only live and can be heard on their live album Fölktergeist and on the Live DVD A Costa da Rock. A studio version for this song was also included in the "El Que Quiera Entender Que Entienda" single.
Kansas ex-lead singer John Elefante covers "Dust in the Wind" in his 2010 album 3 with band Mastedon. It also features the song's author and founding Kansas member Kerry Livgren on electric guitar.