It’s only natural to wonder if the events described in the song actually happened in the life of the author. In many cases, I expect it is not the case. But not with this song. It’s definitely based on events that happened when Dylan received an honorary degree from Princeton University. We even know the date: June 9, 1970.
The following is from an article published in the Dylan fanzine, The Telegraph, issue number 45.
The Telegraph #45. “I got D. incredibly high on some killer weed. I was visiting him and Sara in the Village…Sara was trying to get Bob to go to Princeton University, where he was being presented with an Honorary Doctorate. Bob didn’t want to go. I said, ‘C’mon, Bob, it’s an honor!’ Sara and I both worked on him for a long time. Finally, he agreed. I had a car outside- a big limousine that was the first thing he didn’t like. We smoked another joint on the way and I noticed Dylan getting really quite paranoid behind it. When we arrive at Princeton, they took us to a little room and Bob was asked to wear a cap and gown. he refused outright. They said, ‘We won’t’ give you the degree if you don’t wear this.’ Dylan said, ‘Fine. I didn’t ask for it in the first place.’ I said, ‘C’mon, Bob, these people have gone to a lot of trouble…’ Finally we convince him to wear the cap and gown. I was standing next to him during the ceremony..just like the song says. When it was over, we made a quick exit.”
Dylan has a long history anthema towards colleges. Tombstone Blues. 11 Outlined Epitaphs. Many interviews.
An article partially about the events of that day.
An article about the particular locust that hang out in Princeton.
Perhaps – or more likely perhaps not – Dylan had Nathaniel West’s novel “Day Of The Locusts” in mind. The novel is an outsider anthem, a theme dear to Dylan heart. He would probably like it.
It seems like that he, at least unconsciously, had the bible in mind. Although Dylan has them singing a “sweet melody”, an interesting twist.
“Else, if thou refuse to let my people go/
Will I bring the locusts …”
Dylan has never played the song live.