Don’t Obey Notes
Full text of Scott’s notes about the song:
The song “Don’t Obey” began developing after a reading of Howard Zinn’s marvelous Declarations of Independence: Cross Examining American Ideology in the spring of 2003. It is a song in the Gandhian tradition of nonviolent engagement and finds some of its inspiration more recently from the Israeli military men and women–now numbering over 1,000—who have refused to serve or bomb in the occupied territories.
In the book, Zinn quotes British scientist and essayist C. P. Snow. In 1961, Snow wrote:
“When you think of the long and gloomy history of man, you will find more hideous crimes have been committed in the name of obedience than have ever been committed in the name of rebellion. The German Officer Corps were brought up in the most rigorous code of obedience…in the name of obedience they were party to, and assisted in, the most wicked large scale actions in the history of the world.”
—Quoted in Milgram, Obedience to Authority, (Harper & Row, 1974)
Having watched and felt a part of this “long and gloomy history of man”, I decided to risk setting down my take on it—a take lately sharpened by the Snow quotation, but set in motion musically by my affinity for Phil Ochs’ songs, Bruce Cockburn, and for Dylan’s early recordings; and socially-spiritually by the resonance and guiding force of Dr. King’s work, as well as that of Mahatma Gandhi and Malcolm X, Mandela, Biko, and by more than thirty-five years of a very pointed and personal conscientious objection to war.
I also felt like I owed something to Neil Young.
On or about May 28, 1970, I took my high school sweetheart, now wife, to Baltimore for our first big rock concert: Crosby, Stills & Nash. We were in love, excited, and quite happy to have reached our seats without mishap, having driven my father’s expansive Chevy wagon into the center of Baltimore and gotten it parked in time for the opening number.
C, S & N played the first long set acoustically, seated on stools across the stage, passing acoustic guitars amongst themselves and singing wonderfully.
After a long intermission, during which the stage was reset for electric instruments, the band came out and played “Wooden Ships” with bass and drums added. Then Stills walked to a center stage microphone and asked us to join him in welcoming a friend with whom he’d made a lot of music back in the Buffalo Springfield days, Neil Young.
Young hadn’t been announced as a band mate yet. Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young was unreleased. It was an interesting surprise.
Young came on stage, plugged in his guitar and launched the band into “Four Dead in Ohio.”
Those four antiwar demonstrators at Kent University in Ohio were killed by National Guardsmen under the oversight of the Nixon Administration on May 4. Twenty-four days later we heard the song live, about twenty rows from the stage on the floor of the Baltimore Civic Center at around 120 dbs. It was a testimony of the power of a song that was imprinted on my bones. And, frankly, in combination with the suffering and the stupidity I’d seen in the establishment’s behavior during the Civil Rights era and the Vietnam War, it confirmed in me my lifelong fire for justice and for peace. This is a fire that has not dimmed, nor will it be banked down. I welcome you to come and warm your hands by it. And join in the work.
So, with “Don’t Obey,” I repaying an old debt to mentors, songwriters, and to the musical and political/social communities that have nourished me all my life. What you will do to nourish hope and life is up to you. This is part of my contribution and I pray that, if you find it moving or meaningful at all, you’ll pass it along, use it to open conversations, register a few friends to vote and make sure they’ll get to the polls.
We live in dark times. But we’ve lived in dark times before and came out of them by bringing the Robber Barons and the giant corporations to heel, regulating dog-eat-dog capitalists, establishing a forty hour work week, limiting the exploitation of children, and establishing a living wage. We know how to do this: we had it done. And we can do it again.
A little hope will go a long way: have some and pass it along.
August 25, 2004