ARTIST: BOB DYLAN
TITLE: CHRISTMAS IN THE HEART
LABEL: COLUMBIA RECORDS
RELEASE DATE: OCTOBER 2009
It’s All Over Now, Baby Jew
Before you put this CD in your playback machine take a look at the small package this good thing comes in. Every touch has meaning, and was attended to with more than a modicum of thought. The front cover has what looks like-though it may only be simulated-a 19th century Currier and Ives print of a couple riding a sleigh being pulled by a team of energetic horses, charging out of the circular frame in which there is a lovely winter scene with a snowy landscape. It looks like they are heading out of this bygone world into your postmodern living room. The typeface for the title-Christmas In the Heart-is also studiously old-fashioned, derived from many a 19th or early 20th century theatre poster.
Now turn it over. On the back you will see an evocative painting of the three wise men on camels, proceeding towards the telltale eastern star, just as the sun is sinking over the horizon. And sure enough, as you start to notice the song titles arrayed on a slanting diagonal above them, you’ll see that the last song is O Little Town of Bethlehem. You’re holding Christmas in your hands, from ancient times to the American pastoral past.
But now open up this quaint little box and be prepared for a shock, a visual awakening that will stir the senses of every red-blooded straight American male. You were expecting perhaps to see a picture of Bob Dylan? Think again. His picture is nowhere to be found.
The shock is the vaguely familiar, supremely sexy pin-up girl, complete with a low-cut red lace bra and black garter belt holding up her Christmas red garters and Santa Claus jacket against a bright blue backdrop with neatly wrapped presents.
The photo is of classic 1940s Hollywood actress Bettie Page, the subject of a recent bio-picture. But instead of feeling that you have been thrown back in time to a nostalgic, retro 1940s, because of the old-world front and back cover art, you have the jolting impression of suddenly lurching forward in time-to Hollywood’s golden age. That is a remarkable turnaround in expectations. Dylan’s designers have perfectly captured the musical spirit of this beautiful ode to Christmas Past, by making the old seem strikingly new again. It’s what art critic Robert Hughes called “The Shock of the New.”
Now look at the face art of the CD itself. It doesn’t look like a modern record at all, but rather an early 20th century Columbia recording, right down to their original name, “Columbia Gramophone Co.” And finally, don’t miss the charming but restrained illustration of Santa in his sleigh being pulled by reindeer across the top of the disk. All of these images weave a narrative of what this album is about, before you have listened to even a single song.
The copyright notice may say 2009, but Dylan has artfully constructed a journey back in time, from the birth of baby Jesus, to the 19th century origins of Santa Claus, and finally to the recording studio’s ribbon mics of the 1940s, where Dylan’s signature rough-hewn gravelly blues voice of his recent albums plays off against the sweet, melodious timbre of his mixed-voice chorus, creating a tension between joy and sorrow that perfectly underscores the mixed-emotions of this holiday.
Listeners who were prepared to look askance at Dylan’s breaking into the Christmas market will be relieved to know that he is not exploiting it for any personal gain. All of the proceeds from this wonderful gift are being donated to charities based in both England and America to feed hungry people here and abroad. This is Dylan at his socially conscious best-giving something back in the only way he can-as an artist. He was asked if he would do something on behalf of these charities and responded beyond their wildest expectations.
For Jews who thought that Dylan’s Christian period was a thing of the past, this album may also stir up new concerns. But where were they when Barbra Streisand, Neil Diamond and Neil Sedaka made their Christmas albums? Silent as the night. And where were they when Irving Berlin wrote his Christmas classic (White Christmas-not on the album) and Mel Torme (The Christmas Song–on the album)? If you haven’t figured it out, Christmas has become practically a Jewish holiday.
And besides, Bob balanced his giving this year, appearing in a much-publicized performance on the Chabad Telethon last September. Christian convert or Orthodox Jew-only Bob Dylan knows for sure-and in his typically mystique-laden fashion, he ain’t talking (the title of a recent song from Modern Times).
But boy is he singing-better than ever. His voice reminded me of Tom Waits on a bad day-except that Dylan got there first. Christmas is thus not the season to be jolly-for Bob it is just the opposite-he even includes the Sammy Cahn/David Jack Holt song The Christmas Blues to emphasize his point. And yet, because of the musical sure-footedness of every note on this collection, Dylan manages to find a kind of artistic joy in these previously (for him) uncharted waters. As the album goes on (with a generous offering of fifteen songs) you are taken on a journey of spiritual re-awakening, much like Scrooge’s transformation in Dicken’s A Christmas Carol.
The album begins with the soft sound of jingling bells, and before you know it this old blues master-like he just showed up on your front porch-breaks into the Gene Autry song, Here Comes Santa Claus. As Woody Guthrie once described his own voice, so you can imagine Bob saying: “My voice is not one of the smooth-riding kind, because I don’t want it to sound smooth. Nobody I know has one of them smooth kinds of voices, and yet they do sing louder, longer and with more guts than any smooth voice I ever heard. I’d rather sound like the ash cans of the early morning, like the coyote whooping, like the lone wolf barking.”
Thus, you will have heard many of these songs before, but never quite like this. The only Dylan original are the lyrics to the second song, Do You Hear What I Hear, a conversation among various shepherds on Christmas morning. Perhaps he was there, it sounds that authentic. There are carols, The First Noel, O Come All Ye Faithful, with Dylan doing the Latin verses as well-Adeste Fideles-and the aforementioned, O Little Town of Bethlehem. And there are popular favorites like Little Drummer Boy, Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, I’ll Be Home for Christmas (the poignant highlight of the album) and a breakneck speed Must Be Santa-perhaps my favorite, for its joyous energy. You almost feel that Dylan made this album for his grandchildren, so that whatever happens to the old man (he turned 68 this year) they will have him there during the holidays.
If you are looking for the spirit of Christmas, for themes of human compassion, of peace on earth, of brotherly love, and songs-as Francis Pharcellus Church so memorably phrased it-“to make glad the heart of childhood,” you will find it here.
Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus; and this Christmas his name is Bob Dylan.
Ross Altman has a Ph.D. in English. Before becoming a full-time folk singer he taught college English and Speech. He now sings around California for libraries, unions, schools, political groups and folk festivals. You can reach Ross at Greygoosemusic@aol.com.