The whole internet fell in love with Barack Obama again yesterday after he appeared on Colbert (it was funny) so this an apt time to capitalize on that love with a combined post about the state of “The Times They Are a-Changin’” in 2010.
Let’s start with the good news. On 11 February 2010 Bob Dylan (accompanied by Tony Garnier on bass and Patrick Warren on piano) played a single song for the President and assorted guests at the Celebration of Music from the Civil Rights Movement at the White House. I’ve been somewhat futile in my googling in terms of finding a complete list of what was performed there, but the evening included Joan Baez (doing “We Shall Overcome”), Blind Boys of Alabama, Natalie Cole, John Legend, John Mellencamp, Jennifer Hudson with Smokey Robinson, and Seal. It looks like most of them did a song, and that President Obama introduced each of them. Dylan did “The Times” and it was splendid. Watch this:
So, yeah, great job. This was the first time that Dylan and Obama ever met, though he had praised Obama a little bit in 2008 near the end of the campaign. Dylan doesn’t insert himself much into American electoral politics – yes, he met with Carter, and played at Clinton’s inauguration – but for the most part he steers clear. Rolling Stone quotes from the stage singing the candidate’s praises, and it really isn’t all that surprising.
This evening’s performances (I’ve only watched the Dylan and the Baez, to be honest) are clearly tremendously resonant and symbolic for all of the right reasons. These are often situation that Dylan tends to screw up, but not this time – he absolutely nails this with an unconventional but thoroughly convincing rendition of this song. It’s great.
As for the bad news, well, times change, don’t they. Also in 2010, the hand-written lyrics for “The Times They Are a-Changin’’ were sold at auction by Sotheby’s as part of a larger auction of books and manuscripts. I don’t think that there is a suggestion that these are the original lyrics (i.e. the first draft), rather that they are a later cleaning up of the lyrics that Dylan provided to his friend, Kevin Krown. The sheet changed hands a couple of times before going under the gavel at Sotheby’s. You can see a nice version of the hand-written lyrics (missing a verse) here.
So, the thing sold for $422,500 to Adam Sender. Sender is a hedge-fund manager, who was 41 at the time. Younger than the song itself. If that doesn’t harsh your 1960s vibe, I’m not sure what will.
Sender was a big name in the contemporary art scene in New York for the past fifteen years, so it is not surprising he went public with the purchase. He’s now selling off huge parts of his collection, so it is possible that these lyrics might wind up somewhere else. He is exactly the sort of Master of the Universe that Tom Wolfe depicted so many years ago, swooping in to buy up the hand-written lyrics of a generation-defining song.
Well, that’s life in the 2010s. The song is a crystallized relic of an earlier sentiment, performed for a President who was barely born when it was recorded, and snapped up by a hedge fund manager who wasn’t. Let’s encase it in amber, and call it the 60s.