The great blizzard of 2010 has silenced much of Washington, but not the musicians invited by Michelle Obama to commemorate the movement that helped to make her husband America’s first black President.
Bob Dylan, Yolanda Adams and the Blind Boys of Alabama not only made it to the White House for an historic concert of songs and spirituals from the civil rights era — they also made it a day early, beating a snowstorm that would otherwise have forced organisers to cancel the event.
Forty-six years after travelling to Greenwood, Mississippi, to sing about the death of the civil rights activist Medgar Evers, Dylan performed for the first time at the White House, offering a soulful rendition of The Times They Are a-Changin’.
More than 100 black teenagers across the country joined the Obamas for the performance beneath the incongruous beaux arts chandeliers of the East Room, and before that for a workshop at which Smokey Robinson told them how blessed they were not to have experienced segregation at gunpoint, as he had in his youth. Robinson sang a sobering version of Abraham, Martin and John, Dick Holler’s 1968 paean to three murdered icons from the pantheon of American social history. But it was Adams, the gospel queen and former Texas schoolteacher, who stole the show with its opening number, Sam Cooke’s A Change Is Gonna Come.
Mr Obama listened, clapped and swayed a little in the front row as Adams let rip from a modest stage set up where the East Room normally boasts an antique Steinway piano. Seal had been lined up to sing the song whose title Mr Obama used as a campaign slogan, but he, Robert De Niro and Queen Latifah were among the stars stranded by Washington’s second monstrous blizzard in four days.
Facing cancellation of the concert, its organisers asked the White House at 9am on Tuesday morning if the Obamas could change their schedules to bring it forward by a day. “The decision was made to go and everybody switched gears,” Bob Santelli, one of the producers, said. “By 6pm we were ready to go.”
Morgan Freeman, the only non-singing star to get to Washington in time, became the de facto compere of a show that many said transcended the formality of the setting and its official status as a mere commemoration.
“When Bob [Dylan] sang to the senators and congressmen present, ‘Don’t stand in the doorways, Don’t block up the hall’, it gave me chills to hear that,” Mr Santelli said, referring to the political gridlock that is paralysing Washington along with the snow.
Mr Obama opened the evening by calling the drive for civil rights legislation “a movement sustained by music”. He ended it onstage with the performers, trying to blend in rather than be judged on his own singing. Freeman stood behind him, also performing sotto voce. “I wish I could sing,” he said.
It was not the first singalong of the evening. Joan Baez had led the room through We Shall Overcome and Bernice Reagon, of the Freedom Singers, interrupted her ensemble to get the audience involved. She said: “Sing along with this — you may need it again.”
Only one group of high school students, from Mississippi, was prevented from attending by the snow. Dozens more made the trip to Washington, among them 12 children from Compton, one of the toughest neighbourhoods in south Los Angeles.
“None of them had left California before and an anonymous donor had stepped forward to pay for their clothes,” said Dalton Delan, another producer.
“Afterwards one of them went up to Mrs Obama and said, ‘You’ve changed my life’. It was that sort of evening.”