Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
We may earn a commission from links on this page

Kurt Vonnegut used a graduation speech to explain how “music cures our ills”

We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Just in time for graduation season, Seven Stories Press has released a tidy new volume that collects Kurt Vonnegut’s graduation speeches, If This Isn’t Nice, What Is?, which contains nine speeches Vonnegut delivered between 1978 and 2004. After his success with Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut would supplement his income as a public speaker, crafting charming addresses laced with his signature wit and self-deprecating humor. Although Vonnegut began his writing career in 1950 and was still at it when he died in 2007, much of his writing is timeless and associated with a countercultural rebellious youth, which helps to explain why he is still taught and read so frequently in high school and college. In a 2004 speech to the graduating class of Eastern Washington University in Spokane, Washington, Vonnegut explained how music (and compassion) make life worthwhile. Read the first part here, then gift this book to a graduate—or anyone really:

I was so innocent once that I still considered it possible that we could become the humane and reasonable America so many members of my generation used to dream of. We dreamed of such an America during the Great Depression, when there were no jobs. And then we fought and often died for that dream during the Second World War, when there was no peace.

But I know now that there is not a chance in hell of America’s becoming humane and reasonable. That is because power corrupts us, and absolute power corrupts us absolutely. Human beings are chimpanzees who get crazy drunk on power. I myself have experienced that intoxication. I was once a Corporal.

By saying our leaders are power-drunk chimpanzees, am I in danger of wrecking the morale of our men and women fighting and dying in the Middle East? Their morale, like so many of their bodies, is already shot to pieces. They are being treated, as I never was, like toys a rich kid got for Christmas.

But I will say this:

No matter how corrupt and greedy our government and our corporations and our media and Wall Street and our religious and charitable organizations may become, the music will still be perfectly wonderful.

If I should ever die, God forbid, let this be my epitaph:

The only proof he needed of the existence of God was music.

And I have arranged for a Strauss waltz to be played as you depart, so you can waltz the heck out of here when it is time to go. For those of you who don’t know how to waltz, nothing could be easier and more human. You go step, slide, rest, step, slide, rest, step, slide, rest. Oom, pah, pah, oom, pah, pah.

Bill Gates doesn’t seem to realize that we are dancing animals.

During our catastrophically idiotic war in Vietnam, the music just kept getting better and better. We lost that war, by the way. Order couldn’t be restored in Indochina until the locals could finally kick us the hell out of there.

That war only made billionaires out of millionaires. This war is making trillionaires out of billionaires. I call that progress.

And how come the people in countries we invade can’t fight like ladies and gentlemen, in uniforms, and with tanks and helicopter gunships?

About music: I like Strauss and Mozart and all that, but I would be remiss not to mention the absolutely priceless gift which African Americans gave to the whole wild world when they were still in slavery. I mean the blues. All pop music today, jazz, swing, bebop, Elvis Presley, the Beatles, the Stones, rock ’n’ roll, hip-hop, and on and on is derived from the blues.

How do I know it’s a gift to the world? One of the best rhythm-and-blues combos I ever heard was three guys and a girl from Finland, playing in a club in Krakow, Poland.

The wonderful writer Albert Murray, who is a jazz historian among other things, told me that, during the era of slavery in this country, an atrocity from which we can never fully recover, the suicide rate per capita among slave owners was much higher than the suicide rate among slaves. Al Murray says he thinks this was because slaves had a way of dealing with depression, which their white owners did not. They could play the blues.

He says something else which also sounds right to me. He says the blues can’t drive depression clear out of a house, but they can drive it into the corners of any room where they are being played.

I am, incidentally, honorary president of the American Humanist Associated, having succeeded the late, great science-fiction writer Isaac Asimov in that utterly functionless capacity. We Humanists behave as honorably as we can without any expectations of rewards or punishments in an afterlife. We serve as best we can the only abstraction with which we have any real familiarity, which is our community.

We had a memorial service for Asimov a while back, and at one point I said, “Isaac is up in Heaven now.” That was the funniest thing I could have said to an audience of Humanists. I rolled them in the aisles. It was several minutes before order could be restored.

If I should ever die, again God forbid, I hope some of you will say, “Kurt’s up in Heaven now.” That’s my favorite joke.