At the White House, civil rights in song

By Chris Richards
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The White House has played host to scores of musicians since President Obama took office last year, but the talent assembled at snowy 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. on Tuesday night delivered the most stirring concert there yet.

The concert, dubbed "In Performance at the White House: A Celebration of Music From the Civil Rights Movement," featured a spectrum of performances that included such legends and stars as Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Smokey Robinson, Natalie Cole, John Mellencamp, Yolanda Adams and Jennifer Hudson.

The event originally was scheduled for Wednesday night, but the foreboding prospect of yet more snowfall prompted White House organizers to move up the event 24 hours.

Onstage, no one seemed rushed -- especially not Dylan. Giving his first performance at the White House, America's most iconic pop songwriter ambled onstage and dragged his wonderful, weather-beaten voice over a handsome piano and bass arrangement of "The Times They Are A-Changin'." After the song, there was an awkward pause, a handshake with the president and a hasty exit.

Adams, the gospel great, knew when to linger. She kicked off the proceedings with what first seemed like a light, clarion take on Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come." She wore a glowing smile as she tiptoed through the opening verses, perhaps to hint at the triumphal, big-voiced finale still to come. Impossible not to smile along with that.

Both songs captured the essence of the night: music that vitalized and comforted a generation through one of the most difficult cultural transformations in American history.

"The civil rights movement was a movement sustained by music," Obama said.

Timed to celebrate Black History Month, Tuesday's concert was the latest installment of the White House Music Series, a string of concerts celebrating uniquely American strands of sound.

Since last summer, the series has hopscotched from genre to genre, with nods to jazz, classical, country and Latin music.

But this show was genre-free, focusing instead on the songs that gave voice to a pivotal shift in our nation's history. Hosted by Morgan Freeman, the concert was streamed live on the White House Web site and will be televised Thursday at 8 p.m. on WETA.

Baez, the folk icon, offered a highlight, coaching the audience through a touching singalong of "We Shall Overcome," a song she performed beside Martin Luther King Jr. at the March on Washington. Her voice wasn't the most forceful of the night, but it certainly didn't diminish the power of the moment.

And it wasn't the only singalong, either. Bernice Reagon stopped her fellow Freedom Singers after a few bars, and told the audience they had no choice but to join in.

Not all interruptions were intentional. Hudson and Robinson's duet of "People Get Ready" suddenly turned a cappella. Whoops. Turns out the band had tripped into a flub that will undoubtedly be edited from Thursday's telecast.

Cole sang a zippy "I Wish I Knew How It Felt to Be Free" and an even zippier version of Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On." Cole was another artist who has deep personal ties to the civil rights struggle: Her father, Nat King Cole, advised Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson on early rights legislation.

Mellencamp spoke about his teenage years in an interracial band, then lunged into a growling take on "Keep Your Eyes on the Prize." Ignore that lavish chandelier hanging over his head -- this tune was roadhouse-ready.

The Blind Boys of Alabama offered an equally rousing contribution to the event's educational component, held Tuesday afternoon. Performing "Perfect Peace," the veteran gospel troupe concluded an hour-long workshop held for 100-plus high school students visiting from across the country: Chicago, Cleveland, Denver, Los Angeles, New York and Seattle, as well as the Duke Ellington School of the Arts here in Washington.

The Freedom Singers -- featuring mother and daughter Bernice and Toshi Reagon, along with Rutha Harris and Charles Neblett -- also sang for the high schoolers with enough to force to make you wonder whether the Abraham Lincoln pictured in an oil painting over the State Dining Room fireplace might start tapping his foot. The Singers summoned resplendent harmonies during "There Is a Balm in Gilead" and "This Little Light of Mine."

After the latter, Bernice Reagon recounted being jailed after participating in a march in her native Georgia: "It was when they locked me up that I really understood that song."

After a truncated version of "Swing Low Sweet Chariot," Adams stuck around to sign autographs -- a few of them on programs that didn't reflect the rescheduled workshop's last-minute changes. Due to scheduling conflicts, first lady Michelle Obama had to skip the daytime event, as did two of the musical Johns (Legend and Mellencamp).

Robinson picked up the slack, delivering the afternoon's most powerful remarks. He recounted the inequalities of yesteryear in heartbreaking detail with a story about how he and his fellow touring musicians were often denied access to gas station bathrooms -- sometimes at gunpoint.

"You're so fortunate and so blessed that you won't have to go through that," he told the young faces in the crowd.

During the session, students clapped along to the music, cheered when the singers reached for the big notes and even snapped a couple digital photos. But they didn't ask questions. Considering the last-minute energy coursing through the event, the planned Q&A session had to be scrapped to get the performers ready for the evening's concert.

By the end of the show, the last song of the evening was introduced by the president himself. Joined by all the performers (sans Dylan) for "Lift Every Voice and Sing," Obama ceded the spotlight, saying: "Singers in the front here."

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