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Dylan at the White House

There was hardly time to shake the image of a gnomish Pete Townshend whirling his game old right arm around on the Super Bowl stage when another batch of tottery Boomer music stars showed up on YouTube, this time in clips from the fifth concert in the Obamas’ White House Music Series. The event, staged on February 9 and filmed for PBS, focused on songs associated with the Civil Rights Movement, and it starred Bob Dylan, in his first performance ever at the White House, and his one-time partner in social protest and love, Joan Baez, along with Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, John Mellencamp, Natalie Cole, and a few politically active youngers such as It can escape no one familiar with the narrative of Camelot that this series echoes Jacqueline Kennedy’s celebrated White House musicales, which featured classical stars such as Pablo Casals and Leonard Bernstein in what Mrs. Kennedy later recalled as an effort “to present the best in the arts, not necessarily what was popular at the time.” Had she gone the popular route, she could have brought in Baez, whose grim early folk albums were smashes on the pop charts, or Dylan, whose “Blowin’ in the Wind” was a top-ten hit as a single by Peter, Paul and Mary. I point this out not to diminish the seriousness of Baez or Dylan’s purpose as artists or social agitators; the fact is, political conscientious was a pop-music craze for a time in the Sixties, and the Obamas’ White House concert testified to that as much as anything, as Natalie Cole grooved to Marvin Gaye’s sexy rumination on chaos, “What’s Goin’ On,” and Smokey Robinson crooned Dion’s hit single about assassination victims, “Abraham, Martin and John.” Dylan was in great form in the show, doing a lovely piano-based arrangement of “The Times They Are a-Changing.” One could fault the general loveliness of the proceedings as a betrayal of the protest-music ethos or take it as a reminder of the pleasure principle that figured in the Sixties more than stars of sanctimony like Baez have ever been willing to admit. It’s certainly nice to see the Obamas support the arts by bringing music onto the national stage that is their home, though it might be nicer still to see the president use the powers of his office, down the hall, to make the arts a priority of actual policy.