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LETTER: Commencement speaker is perfect fit despite concerns

When word came that Steve Van Zandt would be this year’s commencement speaker, many students responded with a quizzical expression. If they had heard his name, it was either as a member of The Sopranos cast or the E Street Band. But Van Zandt needs neither Tony Soprano nor Bruce Springsteen to establish his credentials.

Van Zandt is one of the premier rock and roll guitarists, songwriters, arrangers and producers of his generation. He has lived a rock ‘n’ roll life and given meaning to the promise of liberation embedded in the music. As a member of the E Street Band, he co-produced two of Springsteen’s greatest albums, "The River" and "Born in the U.S.A." As a solo artist and leader of his own band, Little Steven & the Disciples of Soul, he released four notable albums in the 1980s, including "Voice of America" in 1984.

That was the year Van Zandt left the E Street Band and became a political activist. He founded Artists United Against Apartheid and organized a boycott of Sun City, a South African resort that adhered to apartheid. The song “Sun City” was one of the first to gather artists in support of a political cause. His “I Am a Patriot” is a powerful expression of love for one’s country and the freedom to speak out.

Van Zandt is also an educator. Through stints on his radio show Underground Garage, and especially his Rock and Roll Forever Foundation, which provides curriculum for middle and high school students, Van Zandt has embraced teaching the arts and communicating the cultural significance of rock ‘n’ roll to a new generation.

A world-renowned musician, activist and educator, not to mention actor, Van Zandt would be the first to say that he had no idea when he was 21 what he would become. Most college graduates do not as well. It will be worth listening to what he has to say. And hopefully, he will do so with guitar as well as a microphone.

Louis Masur is a Department of American Studies professor. 

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