Forty-seven years after he played at Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Washington, Bob Dylan went to the White House for the first time, for a concert honoring the music of the civil rights movement on February 9th. Backed only by piano and stand-up bass, Dylan performed an impassioned, stripped-down version of “The Times They Are A-Changin'” to a crowd that included President Obama and several members of Congress and of the Cabinet. “Everyone was excited about Dylan being here,” says White House deputy social secretary Joseph Reinstein. “It wasn’t lost on anybody how historic it was.”
The concert — which also featured Joan Baez, Jennifer Hudson, John Mellencamp, Smokey Robinson, Natalie Cole and Yolanda Adams — had been carefully planned since July. But an approaching blizzard forced organizers to move the show up a day. “You can’t believe the army of people it took to pull this off,” says Reinstein. “There were White House staffers who were literally sleeping on cots in the basement.” Adds Baez, “It was complete chaos backstage. I was supposed to be sixth or seventh, and then all of a sudden someone said, ‘You’re on.’ Nobody even had a mirror, but someone said I looked fine and then shoved me onstage.”
Organizers weren’t sure if Dylan was going to perform a second song, since he had mentioned the possibility of doing “Chimes of Freedom” or “Blowin’ in the Wind.” Says Bob Santelli, director of the Grammy Museum and one of the night’s organizers, “Believe me, if Bob had opted to play another song, there wasn’t a person in the house that would have minded.”
The event also marked the first time Baez and Dylan had shared a bill since the mid-1980s. She declined comment about whether the old friends talked backstage, though she said organizers tried to have her duet with Mellencamp on “If I Had a Hammer.” “We both hate that song,” says Baez, who ended up performing “We Shall Overcome.” “They said it was a special request from Michelle Obama. I said, ‘You tell her I will do it privately for her anytime, but we just can’t do it.'”
Shortly before the show, Dylan was talking in the Blue Room to Mellencamp, who was perched on the arm of a chair. “A guard came in and said, “That chair was made in 1896 — please sit in it properly!'” recalls Mellencamp. “Then a Secret Service guy said, ‘That’s John Mellencamp. He can sit wherever he wants.'”
The show ended with President Obama taking the stage and singing “Lift Every Voice and Sing” alongside most of the performers. “It’s easy to sing when times are good,” Obama said earlier in the evening. “But it is hard to sing when times are rough. But times like that are precisely when the power of song is most potent.”
This is a story from the March 4th, 2010 issue of Rolling Stone.