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Snowstorm Forces Early Taping of White House Concert
02.10.2010 - Accurate predictions of the second major snowstorm in a week caused the scheduled Feb. 10 taping of “In Performance at the White House: A Celebration of Music from the Civil Rights Movement” to be moved a day ahead. But John's performance of "Keep Your Eyes On The Prize," the hymn that became a major civil rights anthem and was recorded by the likes of Mahalia Jackson, Odetta and Pete Seeger, was commended by both The Washington Post and The New York Times.

John prefaced a simmering rendition of the classic--which featured his acoustic guitar part on his vintage 1932 Martin buttressed by Andy York's electric guitar play--with a brief personal remembrance.

"In 1966 I was 14 years old," he said, then asked the attendees in the East Room of The White House whether they had any children, and if so, if they'd let their own 14 year-old "get in a car with a bunch of 21 year-old guys and go to a bar and play when they were 14, or go to a college and play."

Noting, too, that this band--the Crepe Soul--was interracial, John added that he shared the stage with a 16 year-old kid who "taught me how to dance and sing, and people loved him when we were on stage. It's when we walked off stage that they said, 'You guys take that young man outside.'"

The band mate was only 16, John continued, and never let on that his feelings were hurt.

"But I know it hurt his feelings, and it made a big impression on a 14 year-old John Mellencamp," John said, then concluded: "It was at that point in my life that I learned about how hate can really affect people."

According to the Post's Chris Richards, John then "lunged into a growling take" on "Keep Your Eyes on the Prize." "Ignore that lavish chandelier hanging over his head," Richards wrote, "this tune was roadhouse-ready."

The Times' Jon Pareles likewise hailed John for turning the song, one of many civil rights anthems that remain "bulwarks of resolve," into "pugnacious slide-guitar rock."

Asked after the concert whether he was concerned about having to perform before the President, First Lady, invited dignitaries and fellow artists including Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Smokey Robinson, John joked that "I like to play fast and loose" in discounting any anxiety. But he admitted that he did get into a minor confrontation with a White House attendant.

"Everybody was very polite and helpful, but I got into a little trouble in the Blue Room," he said. He was perched on the arm of a chair talking to Dylan, when he was informed, "That chair's from 1896! Could you please sit on it properly?" After John immediately obliged, a Secret Service agent came to his defense.

"He can sit any way he wants to. That's John Mellencamp!'" he said.

But on a serious note, John observed how different the political climate in the country is today, now that he and Joan Baez can be invited to sing together at The White House less than three years after she was denied permission to perform with him during his celebrated concert at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

And John was humbled by Baez's response when he remarked that of all the artists on the program, only he, she and Dylan were not African-American--and that she and Dylan, who took part in the historic 1963 civil rights march on Washington, deserved to be there whereas he was just an eighth-grader at the time.

Baez, who famously duetted with John on the trenchant "Jim Crow" track from "Freedom's Road," assured him that he belonged there as well, as he was one of the few contemporary artists to have made race issues so much a part of his music.

The concert was taped live by public TV station WETA Washington, D.C., and is set to air tomorrow night (Feb. 11) at 8 p.m. ET on PBS stations nationwide.

To watch the complete concert on PBS.org please click HERE

To listen to the complete concert on NPR.org please click HERE

"Keep Your Eyes on the Prize" at the White House Celebration of Music from the Civil Rights Movement

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