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10.12.09

Dylan's Early Christmas Present

News of Bob Dylan’s album of Christmas songs shocked fans. But his official historian-in-residence, Sean Wilentz, detects not a single ironic or parodic note in Christmas in the Heart—just a sincere homage to American Christmases past.

When word spread last summer about the contents of Bob Dylan’s second album of the year, Christmas in the Heart, there were almost audible gasps of astonishment on the Dylan fan blogs and Web sites. It mattered little that Dylan was about the only major popular American singer or musician of modern times who had as yet failed to make a Christmas album. Bing Crosby made several, springing in part from the all-time popularity of his “White Christmas,” but the list has run the gamut from Frank Sinatra to Joan Baez, the Ronettes (as part of a compilation album produced by Phil Spector) to the Ventures. Even Jewish singers, including Barbra Streisand and Neil Diamond, released Christmas albums. In 1934, Eddie Cantor (born Edward Israel Iskowitz) had a huge hit with a brand new song that other major singers had turned down as too childish: “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.” One of the most beloved holiday standards, “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire),” was co-written by the son of Russian-Jewish immigrants whose name, before they changed it, was Torma—Mel Tormé.

One of my favorites of all the Christmas records—recorded by Elvis Presley, titled simply Christmas Album, and released in 1957—includes old standbys such as “White Christmas” and Gene Autry’s “Here Comes Santa Claus” on one side, and carols and black gospel songs on the other. (The latter include Presley and his backup singers, the Jordanaires, performing Thomas A. Dorsey’s “Peace in the Valley,” which was still a daring thing for an up-and-coming white Southern singer to do in 1957; and the performance, for purely spiritual reasons, moves me more with each passing year.)

The album is a sincere, raspy-voiced homage to a particular vintage of popular American Christmas music, as well as testimony to Dylan’s abiding spiritual faith.

But no matter how many singers had come before, to fans who still remember Dylan as the rebellious voice of the counterculture, or even those who have appreciated the older, sophisticated re-assembler of American music and literature, the thought of him recording anything as sentimental as a Christmas album has seemed odd. Is Dylan up to his old tricks, changing his style dramatically just when listeners and critics thought they had him pegged? Is it all just a high-spirited spoof?

In fact, making this record is a generous act that is fully in keeping with Dylan’s past and with his ever-developing art. The crass reason for artists to release special albums of Christmas songs had always been to cash in on the lucrative Christmas sales market. Dylan understands as much—but in the Christian spirit of caritas, he has donated all of his royalties from the album ahead of time, and in perpetuity, to buy meals for millions of needy persons through the organizations Feeding America, Crisis (in Great Britain), and the United Nations’ World Food Program. The artistic reason for cutting special Christmas collections had always been that there are so many wonderful Christmas songs, old and new—not least those in the American songbook of the past century and a half—and ambitious musical artists have been tempted to take them on. This is Dylan’s motivation as well. Some listeners who heard bits and pieces of Christmas in the Heart in advance pronounced it, with knowing irony, a parody of 1950s white-bread music. But the album contains not a single ironic or parodic note. It is a sincere, raspy-voiced homage to a particular vintage of popular American Christmas music, as well as testimony to Dylan’s abiding spiritual faith; hence, its title.

Like Elvis’ Christmas Album, but in a more jumbled way, Christmas in the Heart mixes traditional carols (roughly one-quarter of the album) with Tin Pan Alley holiday songs, one seasonal hit that has become attached to Christmas (“Winter Wonderland”), and a novelty song or two. The album could have appeared as a large chunk of an episode titled “Christmas” on Dylan’s Sirius-XM Radio show, Theme Time Radio Hour, but this time with Dylan performing all of the songs instead of acting as DJ.

But the most salient thing about Christmas in the Heart is how much of it consists of hits written and originally recorded in the 1940s and early 1950s—the years of Dylan’s boyhood when these songs formed a perennial American December soundscape, even for a Jewish kid. “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” first appeared in the film Meet Me in St. Louis in 1944, as sung by Judy Garland. Other standards on the album come from the same era: “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)” (1944) later made famous by Nat King Cole; the Andrews Sisters’ “Christmas Island” (1946); Autry’s and, later, Presley’s “Here Comes Santa Claus” (1947); and Dean Martin’s “The Christmas Blues” (1953).

It is also striking that, much as Charley Patton’s shade presides over Dylan’s superb album of 2001, Love and Theft, the benign spirit of Bing Crosby haunts Christmas in the Heart. This is not entirely surprising: After Crosby recorded “White Christmas” in 1942, he practically owned the franchise on making popular recordings of Christmas music. Still, it cannot be coincidental that, of all the Christmas material available to him, Dylan has included three of the songs most closely identified with Crosby—“I’ll Be Home for Christmas” (1943), “Silver Bells” (1952), and “Do You Hear What I Hear?” (1962)—as well as other songs that were successful for Crosby, including “Here Comes Santa Claus” (written in 1947, recorded by Crosby with the Andrews Sisters in 1949), “The Christmas Song” (recorded by Crosby in 1947), and “Winter Wonderland” (written in 1934 and recorded by Crosby in 1962). In all, 13 of the 15 songs on Christmas in the Heart, including all of the carols, were also recorded by Crosby.

And so the album takes us back to the mid- to late 1940s, when Bobby Zimmerman was just growing up. This, above all, is at the heart of Christmas in the Heart—Dylan re-creating, in his own way, the sounds of his childhood, complete with hokey backup singers, though also cut with his own style. And the effort is no joke. If there has been an American folk music in the commercial recording era since the 1930s, surely it has been Christmas music, known by virtually everyone, regardless of race, region, or religious faith—whether they have wanted to know it or not. And Christmas music had particularly powerful meanings for Americans in the 1940s. Before 1945, during World War II, it bound together the families of armed servicemen and women—with each other but also with their loved ones who would not be home for the holidays, and who might never come home alive. For all of these people, the great majority of the nation, Christmas music became a musical bond of remembrance of better times past and of hope for better times to come. (“I’ll Be Home for Christmas” is the prime example on Christmas in the Heart.) After 1945, Christmas music became a kind of totem of normality for tens of millions of Americans whose lives had been disrupted for more than a decade of Depression and war, and for whom the new and better times could not come fast enough.

Yet if Christmas in the Heart takes us back to the 1940s, it also takes us back to 1985, when Dylan touted Crosby to an interviewer as a great master of phrasing, one whose songs he hoped soon to record. Dylan’s fans could not have taken the remarks as serious, but they were. And the album takes us back two years before that, to the Power Station recording studio in New York in late April 1983, when Dylan was recording his album Infidels. The 11th recording session in as many days began with repeated efforts to complete “Foot of Pride,” but nine takes yielded nothing usable. To unwind, the band members jumped into a reggae jam—and then Dylan led them into “The Christmas Song,” followed by Louis Jordan’s jump blues hit from 1946, “Choo Choo Ch’Boogie,” then “Silent Night,” and then the contemporary Australian Pentecostal songwriter Darlene Zschech’s “Glory of the King.” If a seed was planted in the era of World War II and just after, it matured in Dylan’s mind for at least a quarter century before he recorded Christmas in the Heart.

There are no traditional blues, country, or rock ‘n’ roll songs on the album, which may surprise Dylan’s most loyal fans but may simply indicate how none of these genres has contributed much of interest to secular Christmas music. In blues and country music, the dividing line from sacred song is pretty sharp: Although Blind Willie McTell and the Carter Family might have sung religious and non-religious material, they didn’t confuse the two.

Dylan cannot, of course, keep from importing his own style and preferences and melding it with the 1940s sound. (The results are best heard on “Winter Wonderland,” complete with Donnie Herron on pedal steel guitar.) His careful phrasing and arrangements cannot always erase the ragged effects of his badly worn and cracked vocal cords, which are not up to a tune as complicated as “The Christmas Song.” But the season’s warm and exuberant joys come alive on several tracks, not least my favorite, “Must Be Santa”—a dance-hall rendition (complete with David Hidalgo’s accordion and George Receli’s crash cymbal) that, although beholden to Brave Combo, revives the polka rave-ups of “Whoopee” John Wilfahrt and all the Midwestern polka band kings of Dylan’s youth. And even though Dylan’s voice actually falters for a moment on “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing,” and an interlude by a female chorale starts off sounding dippy, the chorale’s line suddenly pauses, slows, and turns lovely; and Dylan joins in with "joyful, all ye nations rise/ join the triumph of the skies,” and the season’s apotheosis comes to the ear, and to the heart.

For more than half a century, Bob Dylan has been absorbing, transmuting, and renewing and improving American art forms long thought to be trapped in formal conventions. He not only “put folk into bed with rock,” as his stage manager Al Santos still announces before each concert, he took traditional folk music, the blues, rock ‘n’ roll, country and western, black gospel, Tin Pan Alley, Tex-Mex borderlands music, and more, and bent them to his own poetic muse. At the start of the 1960s, influenced by the songs and milieu of the Popular Front-inspired folk revival, he turned them into something else, much as the Popular Front composer Aaron Copland turned folk songs into orchestral music. His imagination and his voice blasted open by beat aesthetics, Dylan then pushed his own reinventions of folk music into realms that were every bit as mysterious and mythic as the old traditional music, but in a pop sensibility of his own time that shocked the folk purists. And then he turned away again, moving to Blakean and biblical parable, time-fractured songs of love and heartbreak, hell-fire preaching, and onward, through his recovered and revised modern minstrelsy of the 1990s and after.

Open to artistic inspiration anywhere he found it, Dylan acted not so much as a sponge (although he has always absorbed prodigious amounts) as an alchemist, taking common materials and creating new art. Nothing that came within his field of vision escaped him: 1930s French films, 1850s minstrel songs, the works of Shakespeare, Dolly Parton, St. John of Patmos, Muddy Waters—anything of beauty, no matter how terrible, became something to seize on and make his own. And yet, as he ended his seventh decade, Dylan also in some ways spiritually resembled Blind Willie McTell, traveling endlessly, performing endlessly, sharp to the wiles of the world, taking things from everywhere but fixing them up his own way, composing new songs and performing old ones that were sometimes sacred and sometimes secular, but neither black or white, up or down—and that had reference to everybody.

Now, all of a sudden, Dylan has offered a red-ribboned gift to the world, not so much slipping back and forth through time as evoking his own past and America’s, while providing Christmas dinner to families on relief—acting like a grander version of the Pretty Boy Floyd of his last proclaimed hero, Woody Guthrie, but as an artist, not a bank robber. Or perhaps Christmas in the Heart is not just a gift but another album of cover versions that, as in the past, has marked an interlude before Dylan undertook yet another new phase of his career. With the masked, shape-changing American alchemist, it is impossible to know too much for sure.

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Sean Wilentz is a history professor at Princeton University whose books include The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln and The Age of Reagan: A History, 1974-2008. He is a contributing editor at The New Republic, and historian-in residence at Bob Dylan's official Web site.