Half a dozen legislators sat a few feet away, under the crystal chandeliers of the East Room of the White House, as Bob Dylan sang “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” poker-faced.
“Come senators, congressman, please heed the call,” he rasped. “Don’t stand in the doorway, don’t block up the hall.” His tone was rough but almost wistful; he had turned his old exhortation into an autumnal waltz. Afterward, he stepped offstage and shook President Obama’s hand.
It was part of “In Performance at the White House: A Celebration of Music from the Civil Rights Movement.” The program was the Black History Month event in Michelle Obama’s continuing music series at the White House, and will be broadcast Thursday night on PBS.
So the revolution will be televised.
It was not lost on anyone that Mr. Obama is America’s first African-American president. “The civil rights movement was a movement sustained by music,” Mr. Obama said in opening remarks. The music, he said, “was inspired by the movement and gave strength in return.”
Mr. Dylan shared the bill, though not the stage, with fellow musicians who regularly sang at civil-rights rallies in the early 1960s — Joan Baez, and Bernice Johnson Reagon with the Freedom Singers — and a cross-generational gathering of performers: Smokey Robinson, Jennifer Hudson, John Mellencamp, Yolanda Adams, Natalie Cole, the Blind Boys of Alabama and the Howard University Choir.
With a new snowstorm moving in on the already snowy capital, the program took place a day early. In the afternoon, Mr. Robinson, Ms. Adams, the Freedom Singers and the Blind Boys sang for schoolchildren in the State Dining Room.
If any music can claim to have changed history, it was the songs of the civil rights movement. Rooted in the hymns, gospel and rural ballads of the southland they set out to change, civil rights songs seized a moral high ground with their melodies as well as their words....
There was other music directly from the civil rights movement, but the night wasn’t all protest songs and repurposed gospel hymns. It ranged through the 1960s, and into the 1970s when Ms. Cole sang Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” from 1971. The tone of the program shifted between celebration and reflection; Mr. Robinson, in a peculiar choice, performed “Abraham, Martin and John,” Dion DiMucci’s elegy for murdered leaders.
Ms. Baez called for a singalong from the invited audience, and got one, on “We Shall Overcome.” She recalled the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s deciding to protest the Vietnam War. Before she sang, she told Mr. and Mrs. Obama, “You are so much loved.”
Not that I'm unsympathetic, but isn't this some kind of irony overload: singing "We Shall Overcome" in the White House, with (presumably) the president joining in?
Update: Dylan on YouTube here.