The Night That Barack Obama Won, and Bob Dylan Celebrated
“Me, I was born in 1941,” Bob Dylan said onstage on November 4th, 2008, a few minutes before Barack Obama was officially declared the 44th President of the United States. “That’s the year they bombed Pearl Harbor. I’ve been living in a world of darkness ever since. But it looks like things are going to change now.”
It was a powerful, even shocking moment, coming from a singer who was known for rarely uttering a word onstage. But less than four years later, Dylan — perhaps embarrassed by his momentary lapse into sincerity that night — was already distancing himself from those remarks.
“I don’t know what I said or didn’t say,” he told Rolling Stone’s Mikal Gilmore in an interview shortly before the 2012 election. “I don’t know what I could have meant by that. You say things sometimes, you don’t know what the hell you mean.”
I can attest to precisely what Dylan said, and meant, by his remarks during that 2008 concert, because I was in the audience when he said them. It was my sophomore year of college in the Twin Cities, and I had spent the entire fall semester looking forward to the first Tuesday in November ever since Dylan had announced he’d be returning to the University of Minnesota, his alma mater, for a “very special engagement” on election night — his first time performing there, ever.
Like so many young Americans, I had spent much of the autumn of 2008 awash in a certain delirious anticipation — a not-quite-coherent sense that the future was about to burst open, that things are going to change now.
Unlike so many of my friends, who had spent the past few months volunteering for the Obama campaign, I had no grasp at 19 of the larger life-or-death consequences of elections. Most of my understanding of the world around me came not through learning firsthand about power and politics, but rather through consuming what my favorite artists had to say about the world. Coming of age as a sheltered white suburban teenager during the malaise of the Bush years, I understood politics primarily as an expression of weary discontent — something musicians and writers criticized, sometimes directly, sometimes obliquely, in their work, something that a song like “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” had told me was important.
What I did understand was that for me, November 4th felt like the start date of some unknown beginning, one that felt every bit as personal as it did political. I had invited a girl I had long had a crush on, a fellow Dylan obsessive, to go to the election night concert with me. If that weren’t enough, when we arrived at the Northrop Auditorium, I realized we were seated directly next to Rolling Stone contributing editor Greil Marcus, a writing hero of mine who had been teaching at the university at the time.
I spent much of the next several hours watching Marcus watch Dylan, observing how my idol observed our idol, trying to make sense of whatever significance had surely transpired on stage every time Marcus scribbled something down in his notebook.
It wasn’t until Dylan launched into his second song of the evening, “The Times They Are a Changin’,” that the sold-out crowd of 5,000 or so fans erupted in feverish excitement. “On this night so much history was loaded into the song it was impossible not to be sucked into its gravity,” Marcus would later write of that moment in GQ. “He divided history in two: the time the song had, now, outlasted, and the time that would, now, test it. As a dirge the song became a warning: in the past, the people listening had or had not made the history the song spoke for, but now they would have to make it, or fail the song.”
It had taken an American occasion this momentous, Marcus suggested, for Dylan’s music to be freed from its Sixties nostalgia. Throughout the show, the crowd pounced on a number of similar moments, eager to claim any possible declaration (“there was revolution in the air”) as newly applicable to the twinkling present-tense of the evening.
But the song I remember most from that concert arrived, without pageantry, midway through the show. “Beyond The Horizon,” an understated Forties-style ballad from 2006’s Modern TImes, spoke to me more than any grand societal pronouncement. On election night, the yearning that song vocalized — for long-sought-after love, for a brighter tomorrow — was nearly unbearable.
“I’m touched with desire,” Dylan sang in something between a lonesome blues and a lustful bark. “What don’t I do?” He sang of fairytale reunion, the type of national unity Obama had spent the past year and a half preaching in his campaign, a type of unity that I and millions of others had spent that fall willing ourselves into believing.
“Beyond the horizon, across the divide,” Dylan croaked. “‘Round about midnight, we’ll be on the same side.”
As the polls across the country gradually closed throughout the show, the iPhone-less crowd remained largely fixated on the 67-year-old singer’s performance, almost as if they were reliant upon him for some sort of indication of what direction the country was about to go in.
Bob Dylan has spent the majority of his adulthood reacting against that very need — the notion of him as a symbolic American truth-teller — which is why it was so startling when, at the end of the night, he returned to the stage for the encore and offered the audience his thoughts on the night’s significance.
Dylan led into his remarks about Pearl Harbor and change with a quick band introduction: “Tony Garnier,” he said, announcing his longtime bass player. “Wearing the Obama button. Tony likes to think it’s a brand-new time right now. An age of light.”
By the time the final song of the evening, “Blowin in the Wind,” had ended, a mass euphoria had bubbled over in the crowd, which had begun spilling out into the auditorium lobby to watch the final election results pouring in on television. Not more than 10 minutes after Dylan had essentially declared Obama president onstage, it was official: the age of light had arrived.
“The country may not have changed,” Marcus would later write of the night Obama was elected president, “but its history did.”
The overflowing crowd in the lobby eventually poured into the plaza outside the auditorium, which overlooked the campus’ main quad. There were drum circles; there was screaming and cheering; there were college students getting drunk; there were college students’ parents, rejoicing as though they were still in college themselves; there was dancing, there were chants of “No More Bush.” There were chants of “O-BA-MA.”
Not long after the final notes of “Blowin’ In The Wind,” Barack Obama stood 400 miles away, in Grant Park, quoting a song that Sam Cooke had once written as a direct response to “Blowin In The Wind.”
“It’s been a long time coming,” he told hundreds of thousands of gathered supporters, “but tonight…change has come to America.”
Ten years later, it’s difficult to not feel heartbroken, ashamed and yet, still endlessly inspired by the naive optimism of that evening. If Dylan had let himself get caught up in the raging promise of November 4th, 2008, then surely we, too, were allowed to feel that way as well, if only for a single night.
And though Dylan felt spirited enough by the times to release a song called “I Feel A Change Coming On” the following summer, it would only be a few years before he, too, had second thoughts about his own hope.
Speaking with Gilmore, he arrived at the most honest explanation he could find for his statement that evening in Minneapolis.
“Maybe,” he said, “I said some stuff because right there in the moment it all made sense.”