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Advice for Graduates, Part 2

Part 2 of 3 of my 2019 Commencement address at Augustana College.

May 22, 2019
 
 

Second, I hope that you remember that nothing we either love or hate just drops from the sky or rises from the ground. Everything comes from somewhere. Everything has a history.

Think about Elvis.

Here’s a guy who grew up in the poor neighborhoods of Tupelo, Mississippi. His daddy went to Parchman Prison for writing bad checks. As a teenager, Elvis winds his way to Memphis and works as an electrician. He spends nights and weekends listening to music in churches and nightclubs in the black part of town. 

When he finally gets his shot at Sun Studios, the owner Sam Phillips takes one look at him and thinks is just another pretty white kid trying to be Frank Sinatra. As the engineers set up the recording equipment, Elvis tools around on his guitar, hits a blue note or two.

Sam Phillips said, “What was that?”

“Ahh, nothing, just messin’ around.”

“Tell me what you were you playing,” Sam Phillips says.

“That’s music I really like,” Elvis confesses.

“That’s the music I really like,” Sam Phillips said.   

“Black music is the black response to being terrorized and traumatized. We will share and spread some soothing sweetness against the backdrop of a dark catastrophe.” That’s how Cornel West describes black music. And that’s what Elvis absorbs as a kid.

A new chapter in American culture began in Sun Studios that day, but it was part of a much longer story. You see those Delta bluesmen that Elvis loved and learned from, well they got some of their inspiration from the field chants of slaves. Many of those slaves came from Muslim majority nations where the sound of the Islamic Call to Prayer would have rung in their ears and settled their souls five times a day.

Thich Nhat Hanh says, “The poet can see a cloud in a piece of paper.”

If you remember that everything comes from somewhere, you will hear the Muslim call to prayer in Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.”

Knowing that everything has a history means not just learning about that past but reckoning with it - and deciding what role you are going to play in the next chapter. It is never a straightforward narrative. Of American history, Springsteen says, that all of us have to struggle with “the blood, and the confusion, and the pride, and the shame, and grace, that comes with birthplace”.

 

 

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