Dylan in the White House

It’s been nearly a week since PBS’ broadcast of the White House concert of music from the civil-rights era, and its sounds and images keep popping up in my brain.

The Blind Boys of Alabama (now old but still feisty men) singing “Free At Last,” the Freedom Singers testifying “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me ’Round,” Natalie Cole putting a surprisingly spirited cover on “What’s Goin’ On,” the very sight—shivering, for someone like me who remembers those times—of watching these people singing these songs a few hundred yards from where some of them sang in protest not quite a half-century ago, now inside the White House, as the official painting of George Washington looked on.

But the highlight, by far, was Bob Dylan, croaking out “The Times They Are A-Changin’” in stately waltz time, on acoustic guitar, backed only by piano and bass. Yes, his voice is shot, but he knows how to turn its limits into glory, and he sang his lyrics with ringing clarity (no mumbling at this White House).

A lot of those lyrics are as true as they were in 1962. Were some in that audience shivering when he sang “Come, writers and critics / who prophesize with your pen / Keep your eyes wide / The chance won’t come again” or, still more, “Come, senators and congressmen / Please heed the call / Don’t block at the doorway / Don’t block up the hall”? And when he followed that with warnings that “the battle outside” will “soon shake your windows / and rattle your walls,” did they feel the vibrations?

Watch the footage: He seems like a prophet on the mount. Certainly he’s the poet of our age. And, in that sense, I’ve never heard him sing any better.

Lucas Tiberti's picture

It is both fascinating and disgusting that any one involved with this farce can take themselves seriously. Barack Obama is dubious as a black American and Rome is truly burning.

Fred Kaplan's picture

Talk about a farce. Someone named Tiberti had no business judging Barack Obama's authenticity as a black American (you mean he's not one?), and yes"there is a battle outside / and it's raging", however you define it - that's what this is about...Fred Kaplan

Grosse Fatigue's picture

Tiberti's comments suggest, as I think, that this country has not totally changed but at the same time, like an antidote, it produced the most compelling singuer/songwritters in the world.Dylan is indeed the poet of our generation.

howard's picture

just to take a stroll down memory lane, i was at madison square garden in early 1974 to see dylan and the band. it was likely but not yet certain that nixon was going down, and when dylan sang "But even the president of the United States sometimes must have to stand naked," shivers ran down my spine for the very same reasons our host is getting at here.36 years apart and the same feeling: amazing.

richard's picture

Thank you Fred. Truly inspired. Tony on bass, any idea who was on piano?

charles d's picture

After listening to Dylan's original recording in recent weeks(a lot),this new video version becomes hard to take by comparison. However,knowing that there was no one to compare Dylan to even when he FIRST recorded this number helps keep things in perspective. As Lady Day's LADY IN SATIN lp landed harshly on my ears nearly a half-century ago,I've since come to understand it as one of her great accomplishments(as have many others). Her creaky voice wasn't that of a songbird,but of one who had lived what she sung of,who knew that she sung truth. Dylan's voice is just as harsh after all these years,but the truth of it all-OUR truth,whether we acknowledge it or not-rings just as clear.

LGE's picture

I thought it was amazing, he sounds a lot like this guy http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carl_Michael_Bellma Still one of the never to be forgotten poets/musician there i live, wonder if Bob will last as long?

LGE's picture

sorry it should be:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carl_Michael_Bellman

Don Barnett's picture

He couldn't sing then, he can't sing now, no matter what the setting, no matter how many backup musicians he has. Sorry. He might, MIGHT, have been a half-assed songwriter, but he should never have stepped up to the microphone. No power. No commitment in the lyrics. Pitiful, especially with so many of his extremely competent contemporaries to compare him with. Put a flower in his hat. He's done.

Jerry Withrow's picture

.... would that we could have said the same for Mr. Barnett one post earlier.

That Barton Fink Feeling's picture

I'm sorry: that's simply a painful peformance. The waltz cadence does nothing but allow Dylan to run out of breath.Moreover, given the hopey-changey nature of this Wall Street-serving administration, it's pure camp to trot out Dylan's great revolutionary anthem.

Kingsley Flint's picture

Unbelievably moving and beautiful. I am put in mind of the brief waltz time segment of 'Like a Rolling Stone' which leaves us gasping for more, and Bob with his throat shot! Thanks, Fred, downloaded and kept for a cherished moment in time. If Bob Dylan does not once get the Nobel for Literature as the greatest poet of the age it will diminish that prize dreadfully.I have loved his music for nearly 50 years.