Dylan at the White House (or was that Shakespeare?)

Dylan at the White House

4 minute read
The night's worst performance, or its best?
The night's worst performance, or its best?
The recent White House concert honoring the music of the Civil Rights movement made some curious choices in the performers it presented, and their artistry didn't always stir this war baby's soul, but I didn't regret that my wife and I taped and watched.

Natalie Cole was fine, the Freedom Singers rousing, Yolanda Adams revelatory. I'm always moved by "We Shall Overcome""“ and found Joan Baez's reminder of Martin Luther King's anti-war commitment brave and apt. Though I would have preferred Dion to Smokey Robinson, when any vocalist hits the "Bobby" portion of "Abraham, Martin and John," my eyes tear. And Bob Dylan, the primary reason my wife and I tuned in, was, as always, strange and wonderful.

The others had stood at center stage, gleaming, glossy, exuding poise and presence, rewarding the audience by paying unabashed tribute to their shared belief in achievement. And there Dylan was, askew, scowl-eyed, his sui generis hair, his face half-dark, his sidemen (Tony Guarnier, bass; Patrick Warren, piano) absolute shadows, fidgeting with his guitar, wrapping his craggy voice, like an old shawl, over "The Times They Are a-Changin'."

Out of this century

It had been an anthem, it seemed, in 1963, an us-against-them call to arms. Now he waved it gently, clearly (astonishingly clearly to anyone who'd heard him in concert within the past decade), re-conceived in three-quarter time to suit his moment's vision, yet packed with density sufficient to cover the now, the past, and the current future.

"He looks," Adele said, "out of this century, like he is just in from dinner with Andrew Jackson."

One song; no public words; no return for the everyone-on-stage-with-the-Obamas finale; gone. (If you missed it, click here).

"Imagine," I said, "having enough depth in your lineup to leave "'Blowin' in the Wind' on the bench."

"Genius," Adele replied. "Shakespeare's in the house."

Mocked by critics

As with most matters Dylan, controversy followed. His voice was mocked; his presentation belittled; "worst" performance of the evening, one critic wrote.

"Times" was even denounced as an inappropriate gift. Why had Dylan not brought something more directly connected to the events being celebrated, it was asked. Where was the "resonance for today"?

I suppose it's true that Dylan's "Pawn in Their Game" or "Oxford Town" might have made a smoother fit. But if you're looking to keep your events unwrinkled, you'd be well advised to send your invitations elsewhere. The on-line commentator with whom I found myself most in agreement was "Right Wing Bob""“ a fellow with whom, if his sobriquet is any indication, I would usually expect to have my differences. Right Wing Bob pointed out that, with Dylan, you're more apt to be struck by thorny philosophic meditation than soothed by any nostalgic bath.

Yeah, Dylan might have been urging the assembled legislators to clear out of the doorway and stop blocking the hall, and let us have some health care. But he might also have been tweaking the hubris of those in the plush seats who'd believed the change they'd promised would be impervious to other, darker change. It's the ability of great artists to enlarge themselves and enrich their audiences by working amidst such ambiguities.

Age of Light, or Pearl Harbor?

On Election Night 2008, Dylan closed a concert at the University of Minnesota with remarks that the press reported as supportive of the new president. But a blogger posted a transcript that, especially when taken with Dylan's selection last week, places both evenings in a more interesting light.

At the conclusion of his customary introduction of his band that night in '08, Dylan referred to "Tony Guarnier, over there, wearing his Obama button"— raising his eyebrows— "Tony thinks it's gonna be an Age of Light"— he chuckled— "Well, I was born in 1941, the year they bombed Pearl Harbor... Been living in an Age of Darkness ever since... Looks like things are gonna change now" (more chuckling).

Some who heard the tape dispute that Dylan chuckled. But it's undisputed that he then struck up "Blowin' in the Wind." Here's my reading: He was not yet prepared to declare it time to cease asking those nine questions.♦

To read a response, click here.

What, When, Where

"In Performance at the White House: A Celebration of Music from the Civil Rights Movement." February 9, 2010. www.cnn.com.

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