A White House Concert With Bob Dylan, Jennifer Hudson And More

Tuesday night, celebrated singers including Smokey Robinson, Bob Dylan, Jennifer Hudson, Joan Baez, John Mellencamp, The Blind Boys of Alabama, Natalie Cole, and Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon serenaded the First Family and invited guests in a special concert "In Performance at the White House: Songs of the Civil Rights Movement."

The concert was the fifth in a series dedicated to "Music that tells the story of America," as President Obama described in his opening remarks. The evening traced a story from the spirituals born in the early days of slavery to the new songs that evolved and emerged to sustain the marches and protests of the 1950s and 1960s. In a rare overt reference to the role the Civil Rights Movement played in his own path to becoming President, Obama singled out Representative John Lewis as a "man whose sacrifices made it possible for me to be here tonight."

A highlight of the evening came when noted singer, scholar and former member of the Freedom Singers, Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon stopped down a performance of "Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around" to get the audience to join in, noting: "I know this is a show, but you have to sing this song. You can never tell when you might need it." The audience responded with gusto.

One of the most famous voices of the era, Bob Dylan, took the stage for his first performance at the White House. He offered a plaintive version of "The Times They Are A Changin'" playing a guitar with piano and bass accompaniment.

The emcee for the concert, Morgan Freeman introduced musical guests and read short excerpts from passages by noted Civil Rights figures, by the end lamenting, "I wish I could sing." And he finally got his chance: everyone, including President Obama finished off the concert with a celebratory sing-along of "Lift Every Voice and Sing."

The event began earlier in the day with a "Music Of The Movement" workshop for high school students lead by Smokey Robinson and Grammy Museum Director Robert Santelli and featuring performances by original freedom singers, Yolanda Adams and the Blind Boys of Alabama. The students were encouraged by Santelli to "remind people that music is an agent of change." Many of the students attended the concert that evening, and as crowds milled in the East Room foyer after the show, a group of students spontaneously broke into a version of "Lean On Me." The crowd took notice and looked grateful for the reminder.

Special thanks to WETA, Washington, DC, and to PBS.

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The start of another snowstorm in Washington, D.C. did not prevent a concert last night at the White House.

(Soundbite of song "Amazing Grace")

Ms. YOLANDA ADAMS (Singer): (Singing) Then sings my soul, my savior, God, to thee...


That's the voice of Yolanda Adams. She was one of the performers who sang songs of the civil rights era.

(Soundbite of song "The Times They Are A-Changing")

Mr. BOB DYLAN (Singer): (Singing) ...shake your windows and rattle your walls, for the times they are a-changing.

INSKEEP: The people onstage ranged from Bob Dylan to Smokey Robinson to Jennifer Hudson. Their performance during Black History Month was part of a series of White House concerts that use music to tell the story of America.

MONTAGNE: Bernice Johnson Reagon of the group Sweet Honey in the Rock recalled a tune that protesters sang during a march in her hometown.

Ms. BERNICE JOHNSON REAGON (Singer): And a song that had been a song against slavery moved into a contemporary statement and led the march that night.

(Soundbite of song "Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around")

SWEET HONEY IN THE ROCK: (Singing) Ain't gonna let nobody turn me around, turn me around, turn me around. Ain't gonna let nobody turn me around...

Ms. JOHNSON REAGON: Wait. I know this is a show but you have to actually sing this song.

(Soundbite of applause)

Ms. JOHNSON REAGON: You can never tell when you might need it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SWEET HONEY IN THE ROCK: (Singing) Ain't gonna let nobody turn me around, turn me around...

INSKEEP: Bernice Johnson Reagon, one of the performers who sang songs of the civil rights era last night at the White House.

MONTAGNE: Those listening included the first black president, who joined in the singing and he said of the music, it has the power to carry the cause of a people.

Unidentified Announcer: Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome the fantastic Blind Boys of Alabama.

(Soundbite of applause)

INSKEEP: You can catch the whole event tomorrow night on many PBS stations.

(Soundbite of song "Free At Last")

BLIND BOYS OF ALABAMA (Musicians): (Singing) All right. Everybody put your hands together.

MONTAGNE: And you can find pictures of the concert at

BLIND BOYS OF ALABAMA: (Singing) Free at last, free at last, hey, thank God almighty I'm free at last. I'm free at last free at last, hey, hey, thank God almighty I'm free at last. One day, one day I was walking along. Thank God almighty I'm free at last. I heard a voice but I saw no one. Thank God almighty I'm free at last. The voice I heard sounded so sweet. Thank God almighty I'm free at last. I thought I heard...

INSKEEP: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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