Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The music that changed history

Last week at the White House, President Obama hosted "A Celebration of Music from the Civil Rights Movement." It aired on PBS but I caught the concert online here.

I love the music of the 1960s, especially the songs that became civil-rights anthems. They were designed to inspire and lift the spirits of people who had been battered and bruised in the fight for equality. This was music meant to be actively sung, not simply listened to passively.

As Jon Pareles put it in his New York Times review, "If any music can claim to have changed history, it was the songs of the civil rights movement."

And how stirring to see and hear these songs not in some grainy black-and-white news footage from some small Southern town but in the elegance of the East Room.

Yolanda Adams sang Sam Cooke's "A Change is Gonna Come," a song that always gets me choked up. I liked John Mellencamp's rockin' "Keep Your Eyes on the Prize."

How cool was it to hear Bob Dylan sing "The Times They Are A-Changin" for an audience that likely included actual senators and congressmen!

Of course, Joan Baez sang "We Shall Overcome," the song she performed at the March on Washington in 1963. What a perfect bookend to history.

It was incredible to listen to these songs and think about the people who sang them half a century ago, people who were beaten and jailed and even killed simply for trying to register African-Americans to vote.

Now, these same songs are performed at the White House in front of our country's first African-American president. Could anyone ever have imagined it?

Here are the performances by Adams:

And Dylan

And Baez

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