Day of the Locusts; Bob Dylan and his two degrees

Day of the Locusts

We know a fair amount the day of the Locusts from David Crosby’s commentary about how he, Sara and Bob Dylan attended the honorary doctorate award at Princeton University – an occasion Bob Dylan did not wish to attend but which Sara and Crosby tried to persuade him to go to.

The story that Crosby tells does not reflect well on Dylan, and paints a portrait of a paranoid Dylan¸ rather than a man who is against accepting an award on a matter of principal, (as for example Woody Allen reveals in the way he eschews awards).

During the event Dylan refused to wear a mortar board and academic gown, but again was eventually persuaded so to do so that the ceremony could go ahead.

At the same time as the degree ceremony there was a cicada infestation at Princeton.  Cicadas (which don’t normally harm humans) live underground for most of their lives then dig themselves out of their nest. Most cicadas have a two to five year life cycle but in North America some go through a 17 year life cycle and this is what happened at the time of the ceremony – they emerged after 17 years underground.

Musically the chordal basis of the song of I, IV, II, is not particularly exciting, but it is the melody that makes the music interest, combined with the drive of the lyrics which tell a story of the occasion in which Dylan uses the locusts as a backdrop to his own unpleasant feelings.  So in the verse we have the story…

Oh, the benches were stained with tears and perspiration
The birdies were flying from tree to tree
There was little to say, there was no conversation
As I stepped to the stage to pick up my degree

…and then the references to the infestation in the chorus

And the locusts sang off in the distance
Yeah, the locusts sang such a sweet melody
Oh, the locusts sang off in the distance
Yeah, the locusts sang and they were singing for me

It is in fact, an infestation in an investiture, but Dylan didn’t use what is perhaps too obvious a word game.

In short the sound of the locusts, which is normally considered a rather annoying background sound, turns into a sweet melody simply because Dylan contrasts it with what was for him the unpleasantness of the graduation.

The events take on an increasingly surreal turn in Dylan’s vision of events…

The man standing next to me, his head was exploding

And at the first chance he goes:

I put down my robe, picked up my diploma
Took hold of my sweetheart and away we did drive
Straight for the hills, the black hills of Dakota
Sure was glad to get out of there alive

What is interesting was that the award came just before the release of Self-Portrait, which is widely disliked by critics and fans alike.  We don’t really know if Dylan was nervous because of the occasion, or because he knew just what sort of reaction he would get from  Self-Portrait.  Surely someone must have told him it really wasn’t that good.

In Chronicles Dylan is very plain in his dislike of the speech which introduced him at Princeton and which included a phrase about him being, “The disturbed conscience of Young America!”

Perhaps the best story of the day however comes not from Dylan but from Dave Crosby who when asked what he was doing with Dylan said, ‘I was standing by the New Jersey Turnpike, looking for America, and Bob saw a freak and stopped to pick me up.’”

Chronicles does however give a further insight: “I was glad to get the degree, though. I could use it.  The very look and touch and scent of it spelled respectability and had something of the spirit of the universe in it. After whispering and mumbling my way through the ceremony, I was handed the scroll. We piled back into the big Buick and drove away.

And clearly those comments were close to the mark  because on June 23, 2004 Dylan accepted another honorary Doctorate, this for “outstanding contribution to musical and literary culture,” from the University of St. Andrews. This time there was a more interesting speech indeed, delivered by Neil Corcoran.  “It seems appropriate, that his second such degree should come from Scotland’s oldest university, since Scottish border ballads and folk songs have been the inspiration for some of his melodies, and his great song ‘Highlands’ is an elaborate riff, or descant, on Robert Burns.”

Or of course you could see­­­ it as a tongue in cheek reference to all this “useless and pointless knowledge.”  Who knows.

Dylan has also been award a Medal of Freedom, and a Pulitzer Prize Special Citation.  Also he won an Academy Award for “Things have Changed” and a Golden Globe Award for the same song.  Interestingly Dylan has since then had the Oscar on stage with him when performing.


Index to the songs


  1. Interesting read, I always found myself irked by the seemingly unnecessary cynicism and bitterness Dylan vindictively spits through these lyrics, especially in light of the fact he was receiving an honorary doctorate.
    I still think he is complaining over nothing. But I do lile the melody. I also read he was extremely high on marijuanas at the time and the hemp tokes likely amplified his percieved paranoia.

  2. he has accepted two honorary doctorates. princeton and st andrews.

    i believe he has not accepted a number of others, do you know anything more about this?

  3. My husband graduated from Princeton 1966 and I was at the ceremony, and also lived in the town of Princeton. The cicada infestation at Princeton was unbelievable, black thick clouds of flying insects. It was a brilliant song capturing the spirit of their appearance after 17 years of planning to attend the ceremony!

  4. Dylan’s mocking lyrics make a burlesque comparison to the Jews escaping from Egypt:

    “Else, if thou refuse to let my people go/
    Behold, tomorrow/
    Will I bring the locusts …”
    (Exodus 10:4)

    “Day Of The Locusts” is a satirical novel about the false values of the ‘American Dream.’

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