If a current Kenyon student were told that the king of folk, Bob Dylan, once performed at their school, it would elicit an incredulous look. A man of such notoriety traveling to a far-removed part of Ohio to perform at a small college seems outrageous in retrospect.
An article written in the November 20, 1964 edition of the Kenyon Collegian titled “A Day with Bob Dylan,” reports of Dylan and his reaction to Kenyon College. According to the article, upon driving through and seeing the campus, Dylan said: “Wow, great place for a school! Man, if I went here I’d be out in the woods all day gettin’ drunk. Get me a chick,’ […] ‘settle down, raise some kids.” This certainly gives Kenyon some clout and alludes to the ambience of Gambier as interpreted by one of the most well known singer-songwriters of all time.
Bob Dylan arrived in Ohio in early November of 1964 “pale and nervous.” He was only 22 years old and at the peak of his soon-to-end folk phase. Daniel Epstein ’70, author of the book “The Ballad of Bob Dylan: A Portrait,” says in an interview that “[at] that concert in early November of ’64, [Kenyon students] were seeing one of the last solo acoustic concerts that he ever gave.” Soon after his visit to Kenyon, Dylan went on to incorporate a band and transition to electric.
The student body at the time of Dylan’s concert was characterized by the Collegian as “predominantly conservative.” The students “applauded at every derogatory mention of prejudice, injustice, segregation, or nuclear warfare.” That begs the question: What was so influential about Bob Dylan that he was able to sway such an unlikely audience?
Gregory Spaid ’69—a current Kenyon professor who attended the performance as a student—wrote an account in which he describes Dylan’s entrance: “He walked onto the Rosse Hall stage holding an acoustic guitar and with a harmonica strapped to his neck. No fanfare. No introduction. No attempt to ingratiate himself with the audience.” Dylan did not attempt to distract the audience by wearing costumes or having advanced technology; he simply sang poetry that pervaded the crowd.
“One of the things that made him so great was his vulnerability and how intimate he was with the audience at this point in his career,” Epstein wrote. “People just want to touch him, they want to talk to him, they want to know him. And it’s a gift. It has to do with being a poet, it has to do with having a message.”