Nobody quite knew what was going to happen when Bob Dylan took the stage at the White House’s Celebration of Music from the Civil Rights Movement concert in February of 2010. Organizers were pretty certain he was going to play ‘The Times They Are-A Changin’,” but that was about it. “He had mentioned the possibility of also doing ‘Chimes of Freedom’ or ‘Blowin’ in the Wind,'” said Bob Santelli, director of the Grammy Museum and one of the show’s organizers. “Believe me, if Bob had opted to play another song, there wasn’t a person in the house that would have minded.”
He wound up only doing the one song, but it absolutely stole the show. Backed only by a pianist and a stand-up bass player, Dylan delivered a jaw-dropping acoustic rendition of his 1963 civil rights anthem and then walked to the front row to shake President Obama’s hand. It was the first time they ever met, even though Dylan (in an extremely uncharacteristic move) thoroughly praised Obama during the 2008 campaign. Minutes after the press declared Obama the winner on election eve, Dylan even addressed the audience at at show in Minnesota.
“[Bassist] Tony Garnier, wearin’ the Obama button,” he said. “Tony likes to think it’s a brand new time right now. An age of light. Me, I was born in 1941 — that’s the year they bombed Pearl Harbor. Well, I been livin’ in a world of darkness ever since. But it looks like things are gonna change now . . . “
A little over a year later, Dylan accepted the invitation to perform at the White House. Joan Baez, Jennifer Hudson, John Mellencamp, Smokey Robinson, Natalie Cole and Yolanda Adams were also on the bill. White House officials spent months planning the event, but a giant blizzard nearly derailed the whole thing. “You can’t believe the army of people it took to pull this off,” said White House deputy social secretary Joseph Reinstein. “There were White House staffers who were literally sleeping on cots in the basement.”
President Obama was thrilled at his opportunity to meet Dylan. “He was exactly as you’d expect he would be,” he told Rolling Stone later that year. “He wouldn’t come to the rehearsal. Usually, all these guys are practicing before the set in the evening. He didn’t want to take a picture with me; usually all the talent is dying to take a picture with me and Michelle before the show, but he didn’t show up to that.”
He continued, “He came in and played ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’.’ A beautiful rendition. The guy is so steeped in this stuff that he can just come up with some new arrangement, and the song sounds completely different. Finishes the song, steps off the stage – I’m sitting right in the front row – comes up, shakes my hand, sort of tips his head, gives me just a little grin, and then leaves. And that was it – then he left. That was our only interaction with him. And I thought: That’s how you want Bob Dylan, right? You don’t want him to be all cheesin’ and grinnin’ with you. You want him to be a little skeptical about the whole enterprise. So that was a real treat.”
The event marked the first time that Bob Dylan and Joan Baez appeared on the same bill since a handful of European stadium shows in the summer of 1984. She spoke to Rolling Stone the day after the event, but didn’t want to talk about Dylan. Here’s an exact transcript:
I’ve got to ask, did you talk to Bob Dylan at all backstage?
You don’t have to ask that. [Clearly annoyed]
Uh . . . I’m going to ask that, if you don’t mind.
You already asked it.
I take it that’s something you don’t want to talk about?
I fully understand. I’ll move on.