By SCOTT MARSHALL
Bruce Dancis ’69, a 17-year-old freshman at Cornell, was beside himself: Bob Dylan was coming to town. The 24-year-old singer-songwriter would be playing Barton Hall on Nov. 6, 1965. The now-retired longtime journalist didn’t know it at the time, but he was one year away from making history with an anti-Vietnam War protest.
Dancis, who didn’t finish at Cornell — and served a 19-month federal prison sentence for his trouble — managed to procure a Cornell University Press contract for his memoir of last year, Resister: A Story of Protest and Prison during the Vietnam War.
A nominal member of the Cornell Folk Music Society, Dancis helped usher at the Dylan concert at Barton in exchange for some fantastic seats near the stage. One moment, when the singer was between songs, Dancis recalls a shout from the crowd: “We want the real Dylan!” to which the singer quipped, “You got him.”
This moment transpired just three months after Dylan had plugged in at the Newport Folk Festival, and it may be the same moment reported slightly differently by Charlie Nash, who reviewed the concert for The Sun on Nov. 8 1965: “‘We want Dylan!’ [Dylan:] ‘O.K. you can have him.’”
Nash, writing of Dylan’s then-recent transition from folk to rock, assessed the season: “That Dylan died with the release of Another Side. [Dylan’s 1964 album] THIS one is more HONEST, more NATURAL, more PERSONAL. Songs of love and other absurdities. A NEW KIND OF PROTEST.”
Bruce Dancis harbored the hope that Dylan would speak out and write an anti-Vietnam War song. It never came. Though Dancis was disappointed, he says politics could still be found in Dylan’s lyrics; and he was more merciful to the singer than many leftists who felt Dylan had sold out by eschewing any political leadership role.
In a way, Dylan’s leadership came through the beauty and independence of his art, evidenced that night at Barton by a performance of “Desolation Row,” an acoustic performance in the second set that blew Dancis away. The 11-minute song, a new composition from the recently released Highway 61 Revisited, had literary allusions galore. The song was a relevant example of how Dylan attracted an audience at Barton and beyond.
Dylan’s late biographer Robert Shelton informed readers of a late 1965 piece in The New York Times Magazine that revealed the results of an informal survey of English majors at three Ivy League colleges — Dylan was their favorite contemporary writer.
A senior at Brown put it this way: “We don’t give a damn about [Moses] Herzog’s angst or [Norman] Mailer’s private fantasies. We’re concerned with things like the threat of nuclear war, the civil rights movement, and the spreading blight of dishonesty, conformism and hypocrisy in the United States, especially Washington, D.C. … and Dylan is the only American writer dealing with these subjects in a way that makes any sense to us.”
That may sound like rank hyperbole to some ears in 2015, but it nonetheless provides a snapshot of one corner of the zeitgeist of the 1960s.
Michael Turback ’66 was also present at Barton Hall for Dylan’s 1965 concert. Well, for half of it anyway:
“Two of my housemates and I had dates on that Saturday. After attending a football game (Cornell beat Brown 41-21) we took the girls to dinner at Sunnyside restaurant,” remembers Turback. “We had to wait to be seated, and dinner took so long that by the time we got to Barton we had missed Dylan’s entire first set.”
Turback, author of the recent book Finger Lakes Uncorked: Day Trips and Weekend Getaways in Upstate New York Wine Country, remembers Dylan’s 1960s legacy:
“In an unconventional singing voice, the Dylan of that era said things that needed to be said, things that made us think, question, and act. He was an agitator and troublemaker, and we loved him for it.”
Robert Mark Alter ’67, a psychotherapist and author of Sex with a Married Woman: A Man’s Guide to Loving His Wife, also found himself at Barton on that November 1965 evening:
“I went with a girl from Texas named Carol, she wore cowboy boots, and Barton Hall was packed. I was a junior. I was too high from the excitement of seeing Dylan to remember anything else.”
Alter, who’s authored four books, considers Dylan to be a genius and the best songwriter who’s ever lived. He’s not bashful about this assertion: “I use many quotes from many Dylan songs in all my books.”
Not long before Dylan arrived at Barton Hall in 1965, the cover of Esquire featured a collage of four men’s faces: Bob Dylan, Malcolm X, Fidel Castro and John F. Kennedy. Their faces intersected, seemingly in the crosshairs of a rifle’s line of sight. The caption above the provocative artwork read: “4 of the 28 Who Count Most with the College Rebels.”
When Dylan played Barton, Kennedy’s assassination was less than two years old; eight months earlier, Malcolm X had been assassinated. The Vietnam War was up and running. The Watts riots in Los Angeles had occurred less than three months earlier.
For an alienated young radical like Bruce Dancis, Dylan’s song “Ballad of a Thin Man” — included in the set list at Barton — critiqued straight society and pointed up generation gap issues. “Dylan captured that like no one did, and his voice at that point was his best, a dusky one, yet there was a maturity to his voice.”
Today marks the release of The Cutting Edge, the latest installment in Dylan’s authorized bootleg series. The CDs feature the songs from the same era as when he stepped into Barton Hall as a 24-year old.
Tonight, a 74-year-old Bob Dylan, in the middle of his fall European tour, plays a theatre in Amsterdam.
Scott Marshall teaches public speaking and lives with his wife Amy in Toccoa, Georgia. He has written articles and interviews on Bob Dylan for The Bridge and Isis, two Dylan magazines based in England. He is the author (with Marcia Ford) of Restless Pilgrim: The Spiritual Journey of Bob Dylan. He can be reached at email@example.com.