When it gets down to having to use violence, then you are playing the system’s game. The establishment will irritate you, pull your beard and flick your face to make you fight. Because once they’ve got you violent, then they know how to handle you. The only thing they don’t know how to handle is non-violence and humor. – John Lennon, 1969
I was scanning the course catalog for something to satisfy both a philosophy requirement and a serious desire to avoid picking a snoozer. My final semester at the university was otherwise unremarkable so I registered for “Seminar on Non-Violence.” Seminars were generally less structured classes with fewer students. The syllabus offered a mix of readings, contemporary and historical, all covering in varying degrees the philosophy of nonviolence and its role in the global struggle for human rights. Current events provided immediate relevance and inspired more pointed discussion about the importance of peaceful protest in the expanding anti-war movement. Of the dozen or so students in the seminar, I recognized some faces from campus demonstrations in which we participated.
As spring approached and the weather warmed, class would sometimes meet outdoors on the south quad. There we’d spread out on the lawn to take on a discussion and take in some sunshine. Lively discourse, earnest conversation and occasional debate were de rigueur. There were no written exams. The violence of trying to distill such profound thought to mere multiple choice questions was unacceptable. Frequently, we’d reflect on an event or an opinion and write a brief essay about it. Toward semester’s end, we were each to synthesize our final thoughts into an informal presentation to the class.
With some hesitation, I suggested playing guitar and singing a couple of protest songs for my presentation, after which we’d discuss the impact of music. The TA’s eyes narrowed and her lips pursed as she thought a few seconds.. “Yes,” she finally responded, “Topical songs have been an important form of nonviolent protest.” I even sensed a bit of enthusiasm in her voice.
After class I strutted over to the campus library where I finished my shift shelving books on the seventh floor. Ironically, that’s where the philosophy books were housed. The lavatory wall on that floor displayed some of the most creative graffiti on campus. But that’s another story I “Kant” get into right now.
Returning to the apartment later, I removed my six-string from its case and began rehearsing. I settled on two songs, Universal Soldier by Buffy St. Marie and The Times They Are A-Changin’ by Bob Dylan. The first one I’d been performing around campus for a while. It was a straight up anti-war song. I’d learned the Dylan tune many years before and played it often for friends. It was decidedly an anti-establishment song.
The day of my presentation was sunny and warm. We checked into class and immediately moved out to the grassy quad. I opened my guitar case, sat down on the lawn and tuned up during some perfunctory discussion. When the TA invited me to begin, I strummed a couple of chords and started singing, He’s five foot two and he’s six feet four. He fights with missiles and with spears… Finishing to light applause, I was asked to play another. So I continued with The Times They Are A-Changin’, followed by more applause. The TA asked if I knew Me & Bobby McGee. I did and she encouraged me to keep playing for the remainder of the class. Gleefully, I continued. Me & Bobby McGee by Kris Kristofferson and Working Class Hero by John Lennon are the only two others I recall playing. I’m certain there were more.
You might wonder how Me & Bobby McGee fit into a “Seminar on Non-Violence” presentation about protest songs. I wondered the same thing. But when you think about it, I’d trade all of my tomorrows, for one single yesterday, to be holding Bobby’s body next to mine, is as beautifully non-violent as can be imagined. Then and now, we could all use a little more beauty and a lot less violence.