Bob Dylan at graduation

Jun 1, 2014 by

May is the month of graduations and graduation speeches. Those wearing the mortar boards wait with a mixture of eagerness and anxiety to get on with the rest of their lives—whether more schooling or work or the unknown.  Those of us in the crowd, family and friends of graduating students, hope that our loved ones will hear something that somehow will equip them for their future.


But increasingly these graduation speeches echo our popular culture, including its self-referential strains and shallow cultural liberation.  Along with many of our movies and talk show hosts, these graduation speakers tell us, “Be true to yourself.”  “Find your own way.”  These slogans might give students a brief ego boost, but they’re ultimately not very helpful.


There are better, more valuable messages for students to hear–even from within popular culture.


Dylan reminds us that the job of the young is neither to fight the man nor to play the Peter Pan role.


It may be a surprise that one of these messages could come from Bob Dylan.  But it’s true –today’s students might have more to learn from an old Bob Dylan song than from their graduation speaker.  Dylan’s 1974 “Forever Young,” originally written as a benedictory prayer, could also be considered the world’s shortest graduation speech.


May God bless and keep you always


May your wishes all come true


May you always do for others


And let others do for you


May you build a ladder to the stars


And climb on every rung


May you stay forever young


May you stay forever young



May you grow up to be righteous


May you grow up to be true


May you always know the truth


And see the lights surrounding you


May you always be courageous



Stand upright and be strong


May you stay forever young


May you stay forever young


May your hands always be busy



May your feet always be swift


May you have a strong foundation


When the winds of changes shift


May your heart always be joyful


May your song always be sung



May you stay forever young


May you stay forever young


The contrasts to our pop culture-fueled graduation speeches are striking.  Today, if religion is referenced in public settings, we expect it to be generic and so to lack any impact.  But Dylan’s lyrics are full of particular and concrete religious references.


His song opens with the words of the benediction in Numbers 6: “The Lord bless and keep you.”  There’s the allusion to Jacob’s vision of a ladder in Genesis 28, which connected earth and heaven and had angels continually ascending and descending it.  Dylan’s wish for generosity given and generosity received descends from a myriad of reflections on the Golden Rule, including the prayer of St. Francis with its call for mutuality.


For decades now, our schools have put great stock in things like dialogue, cooperation, and conflict-resolution.  But Dylan’s lyrics are a call to action.  He encourages his listeners to do, to climb, to grow, to be courageous, to stand fast, to have busy hands and swift feet.


Although all listeners can find resonance in this, Dylan’s words seem especially relevant to boys and young men, some of whom have been left cold by educational trends and left behind period.  They’re among those today who especially need to hear that disciplined and principled action can be part of a good life well-lived.


We regularly hear calls for courage in graduation speeches, often in the context of some political cause.  But Dylan reminds us that some of the least dramatic but most vital type of courage needed today is to pursue truth and righteousness in a world that often doesn’t recognize them.  He reminds us of the satisfaction that comes from living good and honorable lives, and from encouraging future generations to do the same.


We hear plenty about youth today, often understood as a separate and static caste in our society.  But Dylan reminds us that the job of the young is neither to fight the man nor to play the Peter Pan role.


If we hear only Dylan’s refrain, his song can be reduced to this type of simplicity. But if we listen to the whole song, we’re reminded of the full and true promises of youth.  They’re neither revolutionary nor frivolous.  Rather, they’re tied to the pursuit of truth and righteousness and the hope of living out meaningful vocations.


So in this graduation season, if you or your loved one hears some thin gruel from a graduation speech, consider supplementing it with Bob Dylan’s rich and morally-grounded advice for young people.

James B. LaGrand is a professor of American History and director of the First-Year Core course at Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, Pa.

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