The song seems to be based on a real event – Dylan’s accepting an honorary degree. What comes across in each of the four verses is the narrator’s lack of enthusiasm for the occasion. Nevertheless we are made to feel there is more significance to the occasion than the narrator seems to realise.
There is a fair amount of religious imagery – particularly the references to locusts, a tomb, darkness and light, praying, and possibly gates and trucks. Locusts were sent by God to punish the Egyptians by eating their crops; they represent God’s work as well as destructiveness. Additionally there may actually have been locusts (cicadas) around during the year of the award. Apparently swarms emerge from under the ground about once in seventeen years, and that year, I’m given to understand, was such a year. Also, the title is reminiscent of Nathaniel West’s 1939 novel The Day of the Locust. This may be significant for there the locust of the title may (I’m told) refer to the main character; likewise Dylan’s narrator may also be one of the locusts.
‘Darkness was everywhere, it smelled like a tomb’ (verse 2) seems to be a reference to Christ’s burial. The darkness would be the moral state of people before being saved by Christ’s death. The next line, ‘I was ready to leave, I was already walkin”, by implication has the narrator as Christ since he is leaving the tomb. This would explain the subsequent ‘light in the room’. His emergence becomes, then, not just the onset of his own freedom but the freedom of everyone else (just as Christ’s death and resurrection freed everyone else from original sin). In verse 4 the narrator expresses surprise at having emerged alive, reinforcing his identity with the equally surprisingly risen Christ. This fits with the opening line’s mention of ‘tears and perspiration’ since this would be more appropriate to a crucifixion than to a degree ceremony. And the reference to judges in verse 2 creates a judicial atmosphere appropriate to an impending crucifixion rather than an academic occasion. In this context the trees of the opening verse would represent crosses.
Freedom as opposed to confinement is represented by natural images – birds, trees, locusts, hills. It’s ironic that the narrator escapes to the hills, since the hills, ominously, are described as ‘black’. This perhaps indicates that his freedom is not assured; he is still in darkness. And as Christ, he is escaping to more Calvarys.
The implicit ambivalence with respect to his escape is reflected in, and perhaps explained by, a similarly ambivalent attitude towards the locusts. On the one hand they sing with a ‘sweet melody’ and are ‘singing for me’, but on the other their song ‘give me a chill’ (despite the weather being hot) and is a ‘high whinin’ trill’. The suggestion is that on one level the locusts are the people at the ceremony who, while intending to be nice, succeed only in making the narrator uncomfortable. Since the locusts are ‘off in the distance’ the implication is also that the narrator will still be subject to their oppression even when he’s in Dakota.
However, it is also possible to identify the locusts with the narrator. Just as they emerge from underground, so the narrator emerges from the darkness which ‘was everywhere’. Like the locusts, he achieves his freedom when emerging from the darkness. That he never totally escapes, given the description of his refuge as ‘black’, suggests that Christ’s death and resurrection, with which he is associated, is not the be all and end all. More is required – in some sense more Calvarys – before humanity can achieve salvation.
Overall, then, the song expresses the narrator’s ambivalence towards life as represented by the degree ceremony. He sees his presence as bringing light, but neither he (as one of those present) nor the others present (as beneficiaries of his ‘light’) can escape the darkness purely through his efforts.