Bloomington Herald Times: White House Concert Shows The Times Are A-Changin’

By Mike Leonard - Commentary - There was a point before the musical program at the White House last week when John Mellencamp looked around the room and wondered, “What am I doing here?”

The singers and performers assembled were mostly African-American and rightly so. The program was put together in recognition of Black History Month and titled, “In Performance at the White House: A Celebration of Music from the Civil Rights Movement.”

Morgan Freeman, Smokey Robinson, Natalie Cole, Yolanda Adams, the Five Blind Boys from Alabama. That all made sense. All had either lived through the civil rights era of the late 1950s and ‘60s or lived it vicariously through family members and mentors.

Of the three white entertainers there, Bob Dylan clearly belonged. When he wrote “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” the civil rights movement was very much on his mind.

Joan Baez helped galvanize the aspirations of blacks and whites with her ethereal version of the spiritual, “We Shall Overcome.” She played an important role in the movement as well.

But for all of his musical success, the Bloomington-based Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member still wondered, “Why me?”

He posed the question to Baez. And she answered with a tone that n assured him. “Because you actually deal with race in your repertoire,” Baez said. “Most people don’t anymore.”

Baez knew that much first-hand. She sang a duet with Mellencamp on the song “Jim Crow” for his 2007 album, “Freedom Road.”

It’s hard to say whether Dylan was prescient or merely hopeful when he wrote “The Times They Are A-Changin’.” But if you were to have asked anyone in 1963 whether they could conceive of an African-American occupying the White House in 2010, you likely wouldn’t have gotten much affirmation.

Change has come in fits and spurts, as they say. Even a year before his election, most people would not have predicted that Barack Obama would become the first African-American president.

And less than three years ago, you wouldn’t have seen Baez on any list of the president’s honored guests.

Mellencamp pushed for the opportunity to entertain recovering soldiers at the Army’s Walter Reed Hospital in April 2007, just months after the Washington Post broke the story that the facility was in terrible shape and its patients were getting less than the first-class care they deserved.

After some behind-the-scenes bureaucratic battles, Mellencamp got the military’s OK. But when he said he was bringing Baez with him to sing on a couple of songs (including “Jim Crow”), the answer was an emphatic no-go. “Joan had her plane ticket and hotel booked,” Mellencamp told Rolling Stone magazine. “They didn’t give me a reason why she couldn’t come. We asked why, and they said, ‘She can’t fit here, period.’”

First Lady Laura Bush once canceled a White House poetry reading out of the fear that someone might say something controversial — to her ears — about war. Seven years later, protest singers are invited guests, and military officials and the secretary of Defense are telling the public that “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” discriminates against homosexuals and deprives the military of talented and dedicated personnel they sorely need.

Change has not been incremental. But it’s real.

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