Following up on Bob Dylan at the White House the other night

PBS has now posted a variety of clips of Tuesday night’s show at the White House, including Bob Dylan’s performance at this link. (Looks pretty darned dark on my screen; maybe they’re cutting back on their carbon emissions at the White House by keeping the lights low. Or maybe Bob just wanted it dark, since it doesn’t seem to be the same way with other performers.)

I’ve already given my review of his performance based on the audio, and there’s nothing to alter after seeing it. Call me crazy, but it continues to make the hair stand up on the back of my neck. And someone who might well call me crazy (but, to be fair, didn’t) is friend Ron Radosh who didn’t like the show at all, including Dylan’s performance, as he writes in his piece, An Irrelevant White House Musical Tribute to the Civil Rights Movement:

For Dylan’s loyal fans, like Sean Curnyn, his performance was elegiac. “I think it was an absolutely tremendous, epic, genuinely haunting and beautiful performance,” Curnyn writes.

I beg to differ. To me, his performance sounded like a dirge. The song was slowed down, the lyrics unlike most of his songs specific to the time in which he wrote it, and today, it sounds like he wanted to choose something from that era—-which has little resonance for today. He seemed uncomfortable on stage, waited as if he was about to do another song, and then shrugged his shoulder and walked off, evidently from instructions from one of the stage managers.

Well, the miscue has been much discussed and I believe you have to blame the organizers for that. (Evidently, community organizing does not always translate well to musical-event organizing.) But, in relation to Dylan, I just can’t agree with that take on his song and performance. Dylan’s never been one for nostalgia and I think his performance was precisely anti-nostalgia. As I wrote back to Ron, “That’s why he did his song in a different way — and I think that his song stands out from the particular Civil Rights struggle — after all, it’s not about anything specific, it’s more of a philosophical or even spiritual piece. People didn’t hear it that way back then but he continues to sing it in concert because it’s always relevant on that level. If he’d wanted to join in the whole nostalgia bit he could have done Only A Pawn In Their Game or, more obviously, done Blowin’ In The Wind with Joan Baez.”

On the other hand, I don’t think that Ron is far off at all in using the word dirge to describe Dylan’s take on his old song. Webster’s defines a dirge as: a song or hymn of grief or lamentation; especially one intended to accompany funeral or memorial rites; 2 : a slow, solemn, and mournful piece of music. Absolutely, this version of The Times had a lot of that feel. Far from not liking that, however, that’s exactly what I loved about it. Doing the song in an uptempo, celebratory fashion, in that context, might have pleased the assembled audience a lot more but would have betrayed the truth of the song at the same time, making it seem like a rousing anthem of triumph. People have sung it that way many times, no doubt, but the song is much larger than that. It is, at the least, a commentary on how things are always changing and in the same way never changing; the generations succeed and usurp eachother, the age old conflicts keep playing themselves out, everybody believing that they, in their particular moment, know the truth and are doing right … only to be upended by the newest change-seekers. And the entire song is punctuated by a scriptural quote, a paraphrase of some words of Jesus from the Gospels: The first one now will later be last. That’s an invitation to reflect on an entirely other level.

In other words, the song is assuredly not tied down to 1963, even if it strongly evokes that era for people who were there. As a matter of fact, a number of readers have written to say they felt the song resonated especially strongly the other night because of things going on with the current administration — the turnaround in Obama’s fortunes, his huge decline in popularity and the newly confident opposition. Now, I don’t think Dylan was trying to make any such statement; the point is, he doesn’t need to. The song stands up and is still true; it comments on the current scene because what it has to say will always apply to the current scene. Of-course, the very obvious irony right now is that only a year ago Obama’s fans could have sung The Times They A-Changin’ in a kind of celebratory fashion. Now, so soon, it has turned the other way — the momentum is with those who call themselves the Tea Partiers and Obama’s star has fallen remarkably fast. His agenda in governance has proved to be anaethema to a critical mass of Americans and toxic to his political party. What’s remarkable is how very quickly the times have changed in this instance.

The song is surely a warning against the arrogance of believing that you know all, better than those who have come before and indeed better than those who will soon be coming after you. It is therefore always rather ironic to sing it from a purely celebratory perspective; it amounts to a form of self-mockery in that case, whether the singers realize it or not.

Dylan aside, Ron Radosh disputes the whole purpose of the event at the White House:

For those of us who lived through those dramatic times, it was as if we heard not a concert of a living , vital music, but a museum piece of performance artists singing songs that once had meaning, but now are relics of a bygone era. It was similar to the feeling shared by those leftists who listen to “The Songs of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade” and try to recall their emotions in those heady days of the 30’s, when they participated in what they thought was the great anti-fascist fight.


The music had no spirit. Bernice Johnson Reagon seemed to notice that when she stopped the performance and told the audience, “you’re supposed to sing along,” and quipped that for all they know, they might need the song again. She was singing “Ain’t Nobody Goin’ To Turn Me Round,” with versus about “Chief Pritchett isn’t goin’to turn me round,” etc. But the days of chief Pritchett and Sheriff Bull Connor are long gone, and the Southern towns that were once ruled by the strict segregationist code with all white representatives now have black mayors and councilmen and state assemblymen.

The Civil Rights movement is not only over, but it is so for a reason. Its major aims, desegregation and recognized rights for black Americans, have been realized. It was one thing to listen to the SNCC Freedom Singers in the early 1960’s, when one immediately recognized the courage they showed and the power of the lyrics, as marchers were turned back at the Pettis bridge in Alabama, as Martin Luther King Jr., stopped them to avoid what would have been major bloodshed inflicted by police waiting for them had they marched on the state capitol.

All the above points may be fair, and indeed I tend to think that they are. But I also happen to think that what Bob Dylan did — both in the song he chose and in the way he performed it — went far beyond any kind of canned nostalgia or any attempt to rouse again the feelings of those days, for people today to recall or vicariously enjoy. I think that it was, in fact, exactly the opposite of all that.

I still haven’t seen the closing part of the event in full, where President Obama was on stage and the gathered performers sang Lift Every Voice and Sing. (It’ll be on PBS TV tonight, I presume.) However, I’m strongly assured by readers who have seen it that Bob Dylan was definitely not present for that part of the evening’s entertainment.

Headin’ for another joint; I think we all know how it is by now.

The line it is drawn
The curse it is cast
The slow one now
Will later be fast
As the present now
Will later be past
The order is
Rapidly fadin’.
And the first one now
Will later be last
For the times they are a-changin’.

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