Bob Dylan's Christmas in the Heart
Not as Bad as It Sounds!
By Kurt Wildermuth
There are three kinds of people: those who like Christmas music, those who loathe Christmas music, and those who love Bob Dylan's Christmas album. Dylan's career has of course been marked by not necessarily giving the people what they want: He abandoned protest-folk music; he went electric; he "disallow[ed] demagoguery" (his words) by continually recasting his songs in concert, often to the point of making them unrecognizable; he released five consecutive CDs on which he covered songs associated with Frank Sinatra; and so on. Putting Dylan at the top of Santa's "naughty" list, the album Christmas in the Heart (2009) stands as one of Dylan's most controversial and least welcome surprises.
In 1966, when an audience objected to his electric folk-rock, Dylan told his band onstage to "play fuckin' loud!" Four decades later, he most likely anticipated objections to his holiday album. As an offensive move in anticipation of objections, he might very well have told his band to "play fuckin' Christmas music!" Possibly as a defensive move, he earmarked all his royalties from the album for charity. If paying audiences felt cheated by the product, they could console themselves with the knowledge that they'd contributed to good causes.
That he was "a true believer" (again, his words) in Christmas should have come as little surprise. In 1979, the album Slow Train Coming announced Dylan's conversion to Born-Again Christianity. The next year, Saved made clear his allegiance to fire and brimstone. By 1981's Shot of Love, religion remained on his mind but had become a less prominent subject. (Trouble No More, Vol. 13 of Dylan's Bootleg Series, chronicles this progression in his live performances-and, incidentally, renders this music listenable for many Dylan fans who find the studio albums too "preachy" or otherwise unpleasant. At one point, he was literally sermonizing onstage. But making music, often astonishingly powerful music during this period, regained its primacy.) After the born-again years, tracks such as "Ring Them Bells" (1989), "Tryin' to Get to Heaven" (1997), and "Spirit on the Water" (2006) indicated that spirituality remained on Dylan's mind, but just what he believed, apart from or perhaps running within the songs, became a source of conjecture.
Purely secular types on the political left, wary of Christian right-wing politics, would never trust Dylan again. However, in previous years, some people had at least claimed to jump off the good ship Dylan each time he committed some similarly unforgivable breach of trust. Young Robert Zimmerman's babysitter probably quit the first time Bobby kept bursting into song when he was supposed to be sleeping.
To put people's animosity in context: Consider that, to this day, some listeners who'd devotedly followed Dylan in the '60s haven't recovered from and remain bitter about his releasing the much-reviled, demythologizing Self Portrait (1970). In most cases, though, this canny yet mercurial and deeply stubborn artist's transgressions have been absorbed into his life story or have come to be seen as part of his aesthetic. Even the ship-jumpers have climbed back aboard, especially after 1997's aesthetic revivification, Time Out of Mind.
Consider, too, that when Self Portrait was explained and redeemed as an artistic statement by Another Self Portrait, Vol. 10 of the Bootleg Series, the liner notes to that redemptive collection were written by Greil Marcus, who'd famously labeled Self Portrait as "shit." Marcus didn't exactly eat shit in acknowledging the merits of Dylan's 1970-71 project, but he proved yet again that time put even Dylan's questionable choices in different, broader contexts and perhaps better lights.
By 2009, "questionable" wasn't even on the table for many people receiving the news that Dylan had released a Christmas album. Without even hearing it, they were convinced that "abominable" applied less to any snowman than to the mere idea of a Dylan Christmas album. A countercultural iconoclast, even one who'd thrown off that or any other label, was not supposed to embrace the mainstream cliche, the kitschiness, of holiday music. In this view, Christmas in the Heart had to be a big joke, a put-on.
Q: Is Christmas in the Heart a big joke, a put-on?
A: No, it isn't a joke, but like a lot of Dylan's work it is unexpectedly funny in places. And like a lot of his work it involves an element of pastiche, as he puts on "masks" and "costumes" (not exactly personas or characters).
Q: Is Christmas in the Heart a vanity project?
A: It is to the extent that no major label would have released this album by someone without Dylan's stature.
Q: Is Christmas in the Heart outsider art?
A: Dylan has always been the outside insider, so yes, as the application of a unique, out-of-whack sensibility to recognizable material, it earns that label. In other words, Christmas in the Heart represents not pure madness, unrecognizability, or inscrutability, but a different way of seeing and hearing, an unconventional rendering of the utterly conventional. Approaching it as outsider art might be the most sensible way into it.
Q: Is Christmas in the Heart terrible?
Not at all. As with so much of Dylan's work, especially during his late-career comeback, his renaissance, his post-1997 recontextualization project, this music suffers when simply laid bare, looked at as the latest product from a living legend, shelved in Barnes & Noble next to other new releases, capsule-reviewed by critics who were given it free and gave it a spin or two.
Put in rotation alongside conventional Christmas music, this recording might justifiably be called Christmas THROUGH the Heart (as some have done). Put into the right context, with enough knowledge about who Dylan is and what he does and with sympathetic ears, Christmas in the Heart yields considerable pleasures, just not the ones you might expect from a Christmas album or a Dylan album.
Q: Such as?
A: Let's run through the tracks to get a sense of just what happens in them.
The album opens with background vocals, and background vocals on Dylan recordings can signal trouble. For example, background vocals may trigger flashbacks of the chorus that does the only singing on Self Portrait's bizarre or charming "All the Tired Horses." At the start of Christmas in the Heart, the choir of male and female singers evokes easy-listening music, especially from the '40s and early '50s. So this first song, "Here Comes Santa Claus," comes to us from Dylan's sonic re-creation of the pre-rock era.
Bells ring, ushering in the gently swinging band, and Dylan delivers the opening lines. At first all sounds "merry and bright," but by the lines "Pullin' on the reins / Bells are ringin', children singin'" Dylan sounds a bit raspy. The children might be gettin' nervous at the sound.
If you're familiar with Dylan's recordings from 1989's Oh Mercy on, you know that this rasp seemed worrisome, then grew alarming, then became a fact you simply had to accept. On some songs Dylan makes it work, while on others you wish he'd gargled or seen a throat specialist or waited to record. Then, miraculously, by the time he launched his "Sinatra covers" series with Shadows in the Night (2015), the rasp had mostly given way to, for Dylan, a clear, sweet croon. How did he do that? Or why hadn't he done it sooner, such as for the recording of Christmas in the Heart? One of the loudest complaints about this collection is the way Dylan's gravelly voice contrasts with the lyrics, the sentiments, and the gentle background vocals.
We might wish that Dylan had recorded this album with his "Sinatra covers" voice. We might wish he'd done a lot of things over the years, but in hindsight there are reasons to be grateful that he did what he did when he did. And after all, some of what he did, or maybe all of it in aggregate, won him a Nobel Prize.
On "Here Comes Santa Claus," Dylan falters only when turning vocal corners. For the most part he and the background singers make an ear-catching combination, as Dylan clearly enjoys playing his textured delivery against their super smoothness. This give-and-take, an eloquent guitar solo, and the band's gusto build tension until frontman and backup singers, sounding like they're actually smiling, join on the finale: "Let's give thanks to the Lord above / 'Cause Santa Claus comes tonight." Retro never sounded so in-the-moment, and Dylan never sounded like a truer believer. If the whole effect isn't your idea of fun, Christmas in the Heart probably wasn't made for you.
Dylan's background singers take a breather on "Do You Hear What I Hear?" Here, a lone electric guitar rings in the night sky, as Dylan presents a scenario worthy of his album John Wesley Harding, which was released on December 1967, has always struck listeners as a kind of spiritual music, and includes "parables" (not Dylan's word, as far as I know) that perhaps prophesied Christmas in the Heart.
In "Do You Hear What I Hear?" the night wind speaks to the little lamb, which speaks to the shepherd boy, who speaks to the mighty king, who speaks to the people. They and the singer are announcing the good news, and Dylan sounds completely focused. His rasp is more pronounced without the backup singers. At first you wonder if Dylan wants to achieve a Tom Waits growl, and in interviews he has contrasted the critical accolades his acolyte Waits receives with what he considers unfair treatment of his own growly sound. Get past the surface imperfections here, and you can enjoy a Dylanesque treatment of this bare-bones nativity story. Also striking are the clarity and majesty of the arrangement and production, which Dylan handled himself under his Jack Frost moniker. The sound builds from those opening guitar licks to a swelling bed that reaches its height as singer and king celebrate the coming "goodness and light."
"Winter Wonderland" takes another turn, as female singers celebrate the joys of "wonderland / winter wonderland." The band begins an upbeat shuffle, and Dylan joins the crowd. His vocal oddly veers between two tones: the throaty rasp and the nasal whine he employed in the years before developing the rasp. It may be that on this album, when the rasp kept him from hitting certain notes, he switched to the nasal whine as a safe haven. Perhaps those nasal lines were punched in. The resulting combination doesn't always please the ear, but longtime Dylan fans can take comfort in the Dylanesque phrasings, and again all the musicians and singers seem to be in good spirits.
Having potentially convinced the convinceable of at least his devotion to Christmas, Dylan takes a big chance with "Hark the Herald Angels Sing." Sometimes I think that if he'd left this one off the album, the dubious might have been a bit kinder or at least less horrified. Other times I'm stunned by the raw beauty and complexity of this track, and I think Dylan was right to simply do what he wanted.
Because of the nature of this song, the tempo is slower than on the preceding three; there is no percussion, not even bells or brushed drums; and Dylan seems more exposed. The image that comes to mind is of a Dickensian beggar boy, Tiny Bob, standing on a street corner and singing his heart out. Blended instruments, prominently violin, reduce Dylan's exposure, however, as do the sweetly accompanying female singers. In fact, at times the arrangement becomes busier than it seems. Dylan's rasp pops out at the ends of a few lines, making his entire vocal feel harsher than it really is. He actually lands many of these lines respectably, sometimes using his nasal whine.
In what may be one of the most charming moments in Dylan's recording career, the instrumentation and lead singer make way for the background singers. Suddenly their sweet voices bring us that familiar refrain "hark the herald angels sing / glory to the newborn king . . ." Angels have appeared on the street corner to announce themselves and then accompany Tiny Bob, who is more than happy to share the glory. We're transported, and so is Dylan, who then settles back in among the singers until violin draws the scene to a close.
Jump cut to a prison cell or nearly empty bar, where the sad sack in a film noir makes a promise he very likely won't keep: "I'll Be Home for Christmas." At first, piano is the singer's only accompaniment, and he begins tentatively. Then male background singers join him-you picture a bunch of guards or janitors or other customers leaning into the shot together-as the tempo and his confidence pick up. Bass and drums join in. Dylan bravely lets his vocal imperfections hang out, but he knows that the drama matters most here. The imperfections help him create the character, and the listener can speculate about the back story while wiping away a tear or thinking, "There but for the grace of God..."
Now, if you're one of the many people who can't stand "Little Drummer Boy," Dylan's version probably won't convert you. Sampling this track online convinced me to buy Christmas in the Heart when the album came out, though, and Dylan's remains my favorite version. As a narrative, it might be a cousin to John Wesley Harding's "All Along the Watchtower," with the little drummer boy arriving to play for the princes and the barefoot servants.
You know how Dylan at his most feverish, such as on the Before the Flood and Rolling Thunder tours of the mid-70's, can command a massive, messy torrent from an assemblage of players, over whom he shouts, sometimes seeming to swamp the meaning of his own songs? This recording is the antithesis of that tumult. Instead, the arrangement is built on a subtle march and ringing, over which Dylan delivers the drummer boy's story as though he, the singer, is boyishly seeing from that character's perspective. You can hear why women as smart and sophisticated as Joan Baez have fallen for Dylan, despite his many personal flaws, if he can display such quiet charisma. The female backup singers, too, stay on the gentle side; they're the onlookers, such as the oxen, feeling for the little drummer boy.
From that stellar winner, Dylan confidently slides into "The Christmas Blues," recorded most famously by Dean Martin in 1953. Whereas on "Little Drummer Boy" Dylan sings so quietly as to avoid any rasping or barking, here he matches his sandpapery voice to the understated late-night piano-and-guitar blues delivered effortlessly by his band. The character in "I'll Be Home for Christmas" has washed up, sobered up (somewhat), dressed up, and climbed onstage to entertain the faithful spending a late-December night at the roadhouse. Vocal imperfections? We don't hear no stinkin' vocal imperfections! We just hear this fellow down-and-outer assuring us that the music has healing powers. Now let's have another drink.
. . . Or not. Once again riding high after some knockouts, Dylan chooses to walk the wire. Not only does he attempt the difficult-to-sing "O' Come All Ye Faithful," but he tries to clear the hurdles of its Latin version, "Adeste Fideles." Dylan has said that as a little Jewish drummer or whatever boy in his native Hibbing, Minnesota, he never felt left out of Christmas. Still, you can't help picturing him mouthing the words to "Adeste Fideles" at some point in his past, perhaps as a youthful folksinger transplanted to New York City, witnessing Christian rituals, overhearing Catholic Masses, catching Christmas specials on TV. "Someday I'll show them," he thinks. "I'll be the biggest Christian of them all-and do it in Latin!"
Whether Dylan successfully walks this wire is your call, but I find the attempt delightful and the ambition impressive. I'm not just saying that because the sound of Dylan's voice and his unique mannerisms have delighted and impressed me for over four decades, though that devotion helps. I'll admit that his "reading" of the Latin portion has a bit of a paint-by-numbers feel as he works from line to line, but I'll also swear on a stack of Bibles that he's in better voice here than he was through much of, say, 1978-81 (or '88? or '96?). The female backup singers couldn't sound sweeter, and once they and Dylan glide through the final moments, this rendition becomes yet another success on the album.
Far less of a stretch or a journey, because it opens so adroitly and fits Dylan's Christmas boosterism so perfectly, is "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." After an eloquent guitar line welcomes us in, Uncle Bob hands out glasses of perfectly spiked eggnog and wishes us season's greetings. Once again, his crackly voice comes undisguised, even once the background singers further sweeten the 'nog. But does our weird old uncle sound like he cares? He has no story to convey, just warm sentiment: "Next year all our troubles will be miles away . . . Once again / as in olden days . . . Faithful friends, who are dear to us / will be near to us once more." He truly believes it, believes that "we'll have to muddle through somehow," because to will that is to make it happen.
You know how listening to Dylan's Theme Time Radio Hour broadcasts is like having weird dreams about Dylan being a DJ? In the same way, hearing his strange yet strangely familiar voice-the voice that gave us "How do you feel? How do you feel?"-pop in from an artificial yet artful '40s or '50s to wish us "a merry little Christmas," with Dylanesque intonation and hint of a lisp intact, is to feel incredulous. You may find it hard to believe in a good way, though, if you're willing to accept that sentiment coming from that source.
And that source must be Santa Claus or one of his minions, right? What more can be said about the ecstatic "Must Be Santa," for which Dylan appeared in a party-themed video? If "Little Drummer Boy" is the album's crown jewel, then "Must Be Santa" must be the pompom on the jester's cap. This polka was most famously recorded by the easy-listening bandleader Mitch Miller in 1960, and its cheese percentage is high. But here Los Lobos's David Hidalgo plays the accordion, adding his salsa to the cheese as the band plays at full-tilt.
Q: On this song, Dylan and his crew exchange lyrical Q&As about a particular person's qualities. For example, wearing a cap on his head means the person must be . . .
A: The court jester?
Q: Wrong again! I mean, same thing.
A: Well, then, it's Santa, of course.
Q: Must be. And Dylan injects the line "Carter, Reagan, Bush, and Clinton" because . . .
A: He sees Obama as the second coming?
A: Then it must be for the same reason that in 1963's "I Shall Be Free" he claimed to "make love to Elizabeth Taylor / Catch hell from Richard Burton" and opened his 1990 album, Under the Red Sky, with the completely goofy throwaway "Wiggle Wiggle."
Q: And that reason is?
A: Because it's fun, so lighten up! After all, "Everybody must get stoned," right?
Q: Right. He said that on 1966's "Rainy Day Women #12 & 35," whose joyously tipsy marching-band music is the forerunner of this track. By the way, this track is, to the best of my knowledge, the only Dylan recording that ends with the musicians clapping and laughing as though the session was a blast (though something like that might be included in The Basement Tapes Complete, Vol. 11 of the Bootleg Series, which chronicles the variously inspired blasts he had with the Band in the basement of Big Pink).
"Silver Bells" then glides by on Dylan's commitment to the joy of the season and on pedal steel, which sets the scene in a respectable country tavern. However, the lyrics say, "it's Christmastime in the city," which is where "The First Noel" takes us. The angelic male-and-female choir stands on a street corner harmonizing on the word "Noel," when along comes a gravelly voiced older man who knows all the words. The singers welcome him, a chamber ensemble materializes to accompany them, and everyone finds a special magic in the stranger's ragged delivery, which tightens and deepens as they all focus on "Noel."
For "Christmas Island," Dylan may have "borrowed" the arrangement of Leon Redbone's 1988 version, but then Dylan had given Redbone's career a huge boost in the '70s, and anyway both of them might have drawn on the Andrews Sisters with Guy Lombardo, or Bing Crosby, or another artist whose answer to the question . . .
Q: "How'd you like to spend Christmas on Christmas Island?"
A: . . . is an emphatic "Sure!" as long as I can hula to those Hawaiian rhythms, sing along to the "Alohas," wear a lei, and drink more of Bob's eggnog, mixed with his Heaven's Door whiskey, out of a coconut shell.
Dylan sounds completely at home on "Christmas Island," as he does on "The Christmas Song"-the one that begins "Chestnuts roasting on an open fire." The band displays relaxed mastery on this chestnut, and Dylan throws himself into the vocal as he pictures the details of this homey scenario, with the "Yuletide carols" and "tiny little tots." He pushes his voice to its crackling point, then lets it winds down smoothly into phrases such as "kids from one to ninety-two."
As so often on Christmas in the Heart, you hang on every word, every syllable, and every shift in tone because it's fascinating to feel, not just hear, the significance Dylan imbues them with. Where's he going next? Will the line sound harsh, cute, smooth, Dylanesque in a way we remember? Finally, it's hard to imagine any singer, no matter how technically gifted, sounding more sincere in delivering, "Although it's been said / many times, many ways / Merry Christmas to you."
To my ear, the album ends there. Dylan the true believer, however, wants to make sure that, all the celebrating and kidding aside, we keep the Christ in Christmas. So amidst heavenly harmonizing and ringing guitars he hymns, "O' Little Town of Bethlehem." Again, the nakedness of his vocal commands attention and respect. For a while, it's rough going. He repeatedly strikes at a note that produces an unpleasant grating sound. But by the song's end Dylan has done it again, as so often on Christmas in the Heart and throughout his career: persevered past our skepticism, displeasure, and derision and turned us into true believers. His final "Amen," a rich drone blending with the backup singers' higher one, makes us forgive and forget any infelicities along the way. When he imbues the lyrics with this much open-heartedness, he might as well be one of the golden-throated soul singers. (He did Gospel during the Born Again period.)
To object that Dylan didn't have the pipes to sing this material, or that his once-effective voice was too damaged for this job, is to miss the point. If you want songs-Christmas songs, Dylan songs, what have you-sung conventionally well, listen to other singers. If you want to hear this artist inhabit music as only he can, you need to take the result on his terms.
That doesn't mean liking everything he does. It means understanding the terms as he redefines them. Seeking that understanding can be rewarding on its own. The rewards of Christmas in the Heart can come in big doses, such as through the pristine serenity of "Little Drummer Boy" and the galloping wallop of "Must Be Santa," or they can come in small measures, such as detecting the violin strains that underlie and underline vocal lines. But receiving these big or small gifts means giving the recording time and attention, which are precisely what'll be lacking if you decide from afar that Dylan and Christmas don't mix or must be an unholy mess.
He has said that there are no good songs or bad songs; there are only songs. "Good and bad," he has written (in 1964's "My Back Pages"), "I defined these terms / Quite clear, no doubt, somehow." Perhaps these ideas mean that for Dylan what matters is how the particular thing works and understanding how it works means getting inside it. He's a master mechanic getting under the hood of each song. Religion aside, Dylan might have wanted to sing Christmas songs to see how their gears mesh. And if you believe that, have I got some Sinatra covers you need to hear!
See Kurt Wildermuth's website
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