Charlie Daniels 1996 UNCW Commencement Address & Related Saga
*NOTE* While not really a soapbox, 23 years ago today, Charlie gave the commencement address to the University of North Carolina - Wilmington Class of 1996. Below is the transcript of his speech, and at the very bottom, a video of his speech. - TeamCDB/BW
First, a little history. Charlie was invited by UNCW to give the commencement address to the Class of 1996, shortly after it was announced, two student editors at the school newspaper, The Seahawk, started voicing their disgust at Charlie's invitation and used the newspaper to write several derogatory Op-Eds about Charlie's speech before it was even given. A few months before the address, Charlie first responded with this open letter to the Class of '96 and to the editors with this poem below the letter that ran in The Seahawk:
AN OPEN LETTER TO THE CLASS OF 1996 - UNCW
I would like to clear up a few points about my addressing your class at commencement exercises, points which I feel have been distorted by a few overzealous, uninformed,pseudo-journalists.
I will not address the one-hit wonder,” “goober brained redneck” aspect of these pieces, and one letter published in The Seahawk I will not address at all except to say that the racial overtones it contained were totally unfounded and offensive beyond description.
My professional life is a matter of documented public record and easily obtainable. No need to discuss that.
First of all, this is not the first time I have been invited to speak to a graduating class at UNCW. I have been approached for the past couple of years, but due to prearranged commitments, I have been unable to accept.
Having been born in Wilmington, I consider it an honor to be asked to speak to you on one of the biggest days of your lives, and I accepted the honor with gratitude and humility. I cannot speak to you of lofty academic ideals nor scholarly pursuits because I have neither entree nor credential for that world.
The truth is I come to you from the street, from reality, the very same place you’re all headed if you plan to make a living in this ever-changing, difficult, show-me world, and when your college days are just a memory and your diploma hangs beneath dusty glass or some office wall, you will still have to deal with that world on its own terms every working day of your lives.
Let me tell you why I thought I was invited to speak to your graduating class. My career spans almost 40 years and you don’t go through 40 years of hard work and unrelenting competition without learning a few things.
My qualifications are humble but extensive and diverse. I’ve stood at the 38th Parallel and looked across into the hostile eyes of the North Korean border guards. I’ve been catapulted from the deck of an aircraft carrier in the middle of the Adriatic Sea and ridden across the frozen wastes of Greenland on an Eskimo dog sled. I’ve taken a hammer and chisel to the Berlin Wall and performed with symphony orchestras. I’ve had conversations with Presidents and walked the halls of Congress lobbying for legislation in which I believe. I’ve flown on the Concorde and acted in motion pictures.
I’ve seen the royal palaces of Europe and the hovels of Hong Kong.
I’ve seen the Mona Lisa and stared in awe at the timeless works of Vincent Van Gogh.
I’ve gathered cattle in the Big Bend country of Texas and met some of the wisest people I know at campfires in the middle of nowhere. I was privileged to have conversations with Alex Hailey and Louis L’Amour. I’ve appeared with The Rolling Stones, worked in the recording studio with Bob Dylan and two of the Beatles. I’ve been married to the same woman for over thirty years and raised a son who did, by the way, go to college. I’ve kept 20 people gainfully and steadily employed for over 20 years.
I am not a man of letters, I readily admit to that. But is being a man of letters the only thing which qualifies one to speak to a group of men and women who are about to enter the real world? My world.
My address will not be delivered in the beautiful strains of poetry of a Maya Angelou or with the technical expertise of a Tom Clancy, but I can tell you where some of the land mines are hidden, the shortest path to the top of the mountain and the quickest way down. Been there, done that.
Thank you and God bless the Class of ’96.
February 8, 1996
ODE TO MOORE AND LEONARD
(Not to be confused with Archie and Sugar Ray)
Mr. Moore and Mr. Leonard, the elitist status quo
Feverishly put pen to paper to let all the people know
A non-scholar at commencement? Ridiculous, absurd, forsooth
That a redneck fiddle player, gray of beard and long of tooth
Would think he could say something which could benefit this class
Drawing only on experience from his multi-colored past
He’ll mount the stage in full regalia when we’ve walked that hallowed aisle
He’ll bore us with his drivel, murdered English, verbiage vile
From whence came this wayward misfit how dare the powers that be
Give us such an unsung, unsophisticated hick as he
Bring us poets and politicians, novelists, on these we dote
Not some realistic villain who could come and rock our boat
He may actually think differently from us and this we fear
He may tell us of a world we never learned about in here
So remove this sordid shadow falling dark across our land
And let us pea-brained intellectuals stick our heads back in the sand
And if you’re wondering my fine young snobs
How I took your bold comments
I’d say your ignorance is outweighed
Only by your arrogance
If I may borrow from the Bard who so succinctly states my thoughts
Your words are full of sound and fury signifying naught
And so my fledgling bigots if you’re wont to spurn my speech
You can stay away and kisseth all the hind parts I can’t reach
I’ll See You In May
February 8, 1996
Charlie Daniels UNCW Commencement Address To The Class of 1996
Proud parents and grandparents, faculty members, Chancellor Leutze, distinguished guests and ladies and gentlemen of the jury. Good Morning.
I have a sneaking suspicion that you’re all feeling a little apprehensive about what I’m going to say to you this morning.
Well, let me put your minds at ease right now. I will not be speaking about pickup trucks, NASCAR racing or the finer points of bass fishing. My text contains no rebel yells, is totally devoid of the word redneck and I definitely will not be taking requests.
That taken care of, I would like to congratulate the Class of 1996 for your perseverance and sacrifice and with a great deal of humility and gratitude, I thank you for allowing me to be a small part of your very special day.
Across this nation this morning, there are other auditoriums with other rows of bright-eyed young people, clad in cap and gown, and wondering, as I’m sure you are, what the world outside these walls holds for them. There must be at least a thousand questions rushing around under those mortarboards.
What about the economy? How about the job market? What about the new technology? The old work ethic? Will there be a place for me? Will I find success?
An obscure cracker barrel philosopher once wrote that “the man who gets what he wants is successful, but the man who wants what he gets is happy.”
Success means many different things to many different people and as you prepare to enter the world of commerce and competition, I would have you ask yourselves two all important questions.
What do I want out of life? And how badly do I want it?
You may be intending to go back to your hometown and accept a job or hang out your shingle and devote the rest of your life raising a family and being a good citizen. If so, then more power to you. There is no nobler calling. Such is the backbone of America.
Perhaps a white picket fence, a BMW and a membership in the country club represents success to you. Then that’s what you should strive for.
But if you’ve got a fire in your belly and adventure in your soul, if you want to see the world, if you’re ready to kick over the traces and knock down some doors, if you’re not willing to accept anything less than something spectacular, I can certainly understand that.
That’s how I felt in the summer of 1958. I was making a living at my chosen profession, I was playing music. But it wasn’t my music. There was too much world out there that I hadn’t seen. I had a compelling hunger and a burning desire to pursue my dreams, wherever they led.
So I packed up and left the little white house at 4017 Wrightsville Avenue and accompanied by a three-piece band I headed off into a world I knew very little about.
Well after 38 years, millions of miles, and a considerable amount of beating my head against the wall, I’ve learned quite a lot about that world and this morning I’ve comeback home to share some of what I’ve learned with the Class of ‘96.
For instance, I’ve learned that attitude really is everything. I’ve learned that honesty and integrity are the bedrock of character. I’ve learned that, if pursued diligently, there is an answer to every question. I’ve learned that success is pyramid shaped. There’s plenty of space at the bottom, but as you climb higher and higher, it gets tighter and tighter until at the very pinnacle there’s room for only one.
And I’ve learned that success does not bestow her choicest jewels on the half-hearted, the faint-hearted nor the insincere.
What do you want out of life?
How badly do you want it?
Are you willing to march to a different drummer? Are you willing to be the first one to get there and the last one to leave? Can you be content to work while everyone else is playing? Can you develop the attitude of “I’m going to make it if I have to work twice as hard as anyone else? Can you put up with rejection, unrelenting competition and scathing criticism?
Do you feel like you just can’t stand it if you don’t make something out of yourself?
If you can honestly answer yes to all of the above, congratulations, you’re about to embark on the most exciting, exhilarating and gratifying journey you’ll ever undertake in your lifetime.
And don’t be afraid to start at the bottom. In fact, that’s a great place to start. You’ll learn the job from the ground up. It breeds determination and tenacity. It engenders empathy for those who will work under your direction through the years.
And don’t be afraid to fail. Remember, it’s not how many times life knocks you down that counts. It’s how many times you get back up. If you get back up one more time than you get knocked down, that makes you an unqualified winner.
Set goals for yourself. But make them realistic and reachable. After you accomplish your first goal, set a higher one, then a higher one and so on. Your goals will constantly change. I know that mind did.
My first goal was just to make a living traveling around the country entertaining people. Then I wanted to entertain in the better places, then I wanted to make a record. Then I wanted to make an album, then it was a gold album, then a platinum album. I wanted to travel abroad and share my music with other people and other cultures. I wanted to win awards and appear on television and in motion pictures.
Yes, my goals were constantly changing, but never my direction. I was always headed upward to a higher place in the pyramid.
And ladies and gentlemen, after almost four decades, I can stand here before you and honestly say that it’s been worth every rejection, every ridicule, every ounce of expended energy, every drop of sweat and every lonely hour I’ve ever spent to achieve the things which make up my dreams.
And if you’re thinking “Charlie Daniels, you were just lucky,” I would say to you that I don’t believe in luck, once you’ve set your goal, never, never ever give up.
Nashville, Tennessee, is a hard nut to crack. When I moved there in 1967 it was almost a closed shop. And the people who were in power jealously guarded that shop, freezing out new ideas and new people. It seemed that I just couldn’t get my foot in the door.
When I first went to Nashville I made a living playing on other people’s recording sessions. Well the good old boys didn’t like the way I played and they didn’t like the way I looked. My hair was longer than theirs and I played my guitar in a bluesy, rock and roll fashion. I was a square peg in a round hole.
There was a hill not far from where I lived which overlooked the city. I used to drive up there late at night and shake my fist at Nashville and say “you’re not going to beat me, I WILL make it here.
Then a gentleman named Bob Dylan came to town to record an album called “Nashville Skyline,” and chose me above all the other guitar players in Nashville to play on it. I went on to make other albums with Bob Dylan and I will be eternally grateful to him because playing on his albums helped launch my career.
Never give up. Never compare yourself with someone else and never let somebody else tell you that you don’t have what it takes.
If I can do it, believe me, anybody can. I’m not a naturally talented musician. I’ve known naturally talented musicians. To them, achieving proficiency on a musical instrument is like falling off a log. I’ve always had to take a little longer to learn a song. To practice a little bit more, to work a little bit harder.
The caliber of my vocal talents fall somewhere between Mr. Rogers and Roseanne Barr, and I’ve never once been accused of being a sex symbol. Yet I’ve had incredible things happen to me. Things I didn’t even have the imagination to dream about when I left this beautiful city all those years ago. Why? How? Desire, attitude, hard work and the blessings of Almighty God.
Don’t believe everything you hear or read. If you’d listen to some people they’d have you believe that America’s golden days are behind her. That we’ve lost our competitive edge to the Pacific Rim nations and other newly awakened economies.
Others will tell you that it’s a fixed game, that minorities and women don’t stand a chance of excelling in the marketplace. Well, in the vernacular of the street from whence I came, I say B.S.!
America may have her ups and downs and she certainly has her faults, but the United States of America is still the envy of the planet. We still set the standard for which all others aim, with more freedom and more opportunity than any other nation on the face of the earth.
Minorities have made tremendous strides in the mainstream of American business, politics, athletics and the arts in the last few decades. The late Ron Brown was a successful businessman before he entered the government at Cabinet level. Colin Powell, Henry Cisneros, Clarence Thomas, Secretary of Transportation Federico Pena, Bill Cosby and the list goes on and on.
Broadcast Music Incorporated, the largest performing rights society in the world, is headed by a woman. Frances Preston has worked her way to the very pinnacle of her profession. She has had an expansive and highly successful tenure at BMI and is held in the utmost esteem by her peers of both genders.
Can anyone deny the success of Mary Kay, Janet Reno, Oprah Winfrey, Sandra Day O’Connor, Donna Shalala and Marcia Clark? I think not.
America desperately needs her best and brightest, her most dedicated, innovative and motivated children to meet the challenges we’ll face in the new millennium.
The cream of your generation will rise to the top because of who they are, not what they are, race and gender notwithstanding. The challenges are diverse and innumerable. The opportunities are countless.
Who will find the cure for Aids and cancer? Who will become the new captains of industry? Who will design the fuel-efficient, environmentally friendly internal combustion engine? Who can solve the drug problem?
Who will bind up the wounds of the disenfranchised and help to usher the third world countries into the twenty-first century?
Who will be the next Ernest Hemingway, the next Billy Graham? Who will fill the shoes of Bill Gates, John Hammond and Norman Schwarzkopf? Who will be the next Michael Jackson?
Outside those doors, there’s a whole world waiting for you to come and stake your claim.
What do you want out of life?
How badly do you want it?
Time goes by so quickly. I know that sounds like a tired old cliché to you. You probably thought that the last four would never be over. But they are over and the next four will be over before you realize it. Then another four, until like me, you’ll be looking back wondering where it all went.
But I’m happy to tell you today that I wouldn’t trade places with any man on earth. And I wouldn’t trade lives with anyone.
Life is so wonderful, so unique, so fragile. It can’t be rewound or relived. Make the most out of every day.
And in closing, I would like to give you the most important advice I know,
“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
It really works. God bless the Class of ‘96! Thank you.
May 11, 1996
PLEASE READ BEFORE YOU POST
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