Interviewer: You really give a heroic performance of “O Little Town Of Bethlehem”. The way you do it reminds me a little of an Irish rebel song. There’s something almost defiant in the way you sing, “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.” I don’t want to put you on the spot, but you sure deliver that song like a true believer.
Bob Dylan: Well, I am a true believer.
Making an album of Christmas music would seem to be about as middle-of-the-road and as polite and inoffensive a project as a singer could have. So it would seem. But when Bob decided to announce the release of his 2009 Christmas album, it got the online critics’ fires a-blazing! Bob Dylan and Christmas carols are not an obvious fit. Dylan certainly doesn’t have the crooning style of a Bing Crosby or the pleasant voice of a Jim Reeves. Recording an album of Christmas songs is hardly likely to win plaudits for high art. But the negative reaction began long before the album was released or heard – because it involved a Jewish man who takes his spirituality seriously, once again singing about Jesus Christ – albeit this time about his birth rather than about his death, resurrection or second coming.
The argument went something like this: Dylan’s original name is Zimmerman, he was raised in a Jewish home and he simply has no business touching anything that smells of the Christian faith. This wasn’t quite as fiery a reaction as greeted ‘Slow Train Coming’ or ‘Saved’ but 30 years later to have this reaction from both Jewish and Gentile commentators was simply amazing and rather misplaced. More than a generation may have passed since those early “Jesus” albums of Dylan’s but since that time he has recorded hardly a single album that hasn’t spoken of his spiritual journey in implicitly Christian terms. This new generation of critics were just shooting at the obvious target and missing completely a man’s right to choose his own faith and to express it as he so chooses. They didn’t even wait to hear the offending disc!
The gale of negativity shifted direction in late September of that year when the UK Amazon site “leaked” small samples of each of the tracks on the album. The consternation now turned to derision as fans and critics alike announced how musically appalling the album was going to be. They didn’t like the concept and they didn’t like the arrangements. Dylan was out on tour at that time opening most nights’ shows with “Gonna Change My Way Of Thinking” telling his crowd that “Jesus is calling – He’s coming back to gather his jewels” but the critics rounded on him for recording a Christmas album. We live in strange times.
All this for an album where all of the artist’s royalties were and are being donated to charities fighting hunger in perpetuity. This remarkable move where Dylan’s management has gone to great lengths to link in each country where the album is sold with a reputable charity feeding the homeless has set a new industry standard for charitable effort. Gone the days when making a charity record meant that everyone got their cut first, or where the actual means of distributing the benefit was unclear. Dylan, the artist being derided, has given this album away. A clear case of “Christmas in the heart” if ever there was one. No doubt he can afford to work for nothing – but he didn’t have to work for nothing; he chose to.
Even this couldn’t warm the cockles of the hearts of the commenting Dylan admirers. One fan on noted Dylan fan site Expecting Rain proposed that people should give the money to beggars they passed in the street rather than buy this mistake of an album – again, all this before review copies were even available.
Now that the furore has passed and the album can be found in your local record store (assuming you still have one) and online, only one question remains: what does it sound like?
The first track, “Here Comes Santa Claus”, tells us a lot about where this album is going. The backing vocalists and Dylan’s lead vocal are hopelessly at odds. The backing vocalists sound like they’ve stepped out of another era. Imagine a pre-second world war vocal group who have not aged and who have not been effected by any musical ideas that have washed up on the world’s shores since that time. That is what you have here. Dylan, by contrast, sounds every bit of his 68 years (as he was at the time of recording) and every bit an old blues singer who has been on the road for ever. There is a line on Dylan’s previous album about him having the blood of the land in his voice. You can hear here what he means by that sentiment. He sounds as old as the earth.
Also the childishness of the song, a real appreciation of the sentimentality of the holidays and the true meaning of Christmas come face-to-face in another clash of ideas: “Peace on earth will come to all/If we just follow the light/Let’s give thanks to the Lord above/Because Santa Claus comes tonight.” On one hand, it might seem ridiculous but on the other it might actually work. I think it might depend on how much you like Christmas songs and how much you can tolerate Dylan’s voice.
That sense of three things coming together is all over this album – right down to its design. The Christmas card-style scene on the front of the CD has stepped out of another era just like those backing vocalists. The serious spiritual devotion which is captured in the album is reflected by that inlay card with three magi following a star. The sense of fun and knockabout humour of it all can be seen in the picture of Bettie Page – clad in Santa Suit and stockings and suspenders – which adorns the back page of the booklet.
“Do You Hear What I Hear?” is opportunity for Mr Dylan to capture that sense of childlike innocence that accompanies the best understanding of the Christmas birth. Dylan, his voice as gruff as it has ever been, cherishes and cares for every syllable. Whatever else this album is meant to achieve, he is serious about relating for us all the meanings of Christmas even if the meaning in some of these songs is only that Christmas is meant to be fun.
On the third track, the male backing vocalists of the opening track are traded for a female group who are equally adept at creating that pre-rock ‘n’ roll era. There’s a nice bass line from Tony Garnier but this is just the harmless bit of fun that “Winter Wonderland” was always meant to be. “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” is an abbreviated but reverent rendering with Dylan’s voice stretching to make the chosen key.
“I’ll Be Home For Christmas” captures that longing for the ideal family Christmas celebration that is at the heart of this album. It is the closing scene from It’s A Wonderful Life or the moment when Scrooge realises that he hasn’t missed Christmas Day albeit in a home where the Inkspots and the Beverley Sisters have all turned up for your dream.
The alternating of the themes of family Christmas/the story behind Christmas continues as next the band chooses to give us “Little Drummer Boy”. Again, this is a straightforward and delicate version driven appropriately enough by George Receli’s percussion. “The Christmas Blues” is a Charles Brown or even Nat King Cole arrangement with Dylan at the helm. Ironically, another period piece which is sadder than most everything else on offer, it probably suits Dylan’s voice best of all the songs here.
The listener might by now feel that they’re prepared for anything, but the sound of Mr Zimmerman singing the first verse of “O Come All Ye Faithful” in Latin is quite something. Rough and ready… and, well, Latin. As on “Hark The Herald Angels” Dylan gives only the best known verses but this is quite delightful.
The middle section of the album finds the singer at his most playful with first a tender version of “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” and then a manic, polka-rhythm, accordion-driven wild version of “Must Be Santa” which at the time was promoted with a video which features Dylan in a Santa hat and silver-blonde wig. If this doesn’t make you smile then there’s no presents for you this Christmas.
Anything that followed “Must Be Santa” would sound tame and it is a pleasant enough version of “Silver Bells” which is given the task. More spirited and better is the version of “The First Noel” which follows that song. Dylan and vocalists sound totally devoted on this one before coming over all playful again on “Christmas Island” which is all Hawaiian guitars and hula skirts. Next up, “The Christmas Song” celebrates “the happiest season of all” and Dylan sounds like he really has Christmas in the heart. It is hard to despise anyone who sounds like he enjoys Christmas this much.
For the final song, Dylan comes over all devotional again with his rendering of “O Little Town Of Bethlehem”. Along with “Must Be Santa”, this is my favourite moment of the album. When Dylan speaks of “the hopes and fears of all the years” being met in the coming of Christ, you can tell he sings from experience – experience wrought by both faith and doubt. The album closes by telling us that: “Where meek souls will receive him still, the dear Christ enters in” before a rousing “Amen” on which all the album’s vocalists join together.
If you haven’t bought this album in the three years since it came out, it is about time you asked yourself why not. The royalty arrangement still applies so your purchase will give someone a free dinner this Christmas and this album will still be annoying / entertaining people in a decade’s time. It is ridiculous to ask whether this can be listed amongst Dylan’s most important releases but it is always going to be one of his most fun – and puzzling – titles and for that reason alone it is worth the five pounds fifty to eight pounds that Amazon is currently charging for the different editions at the moment.
So Bah, humbug! to those who don’t want a Jewish guy to sing heartfelt songs about Christmas whilst feeding the poor. This album might just make your home a little warmer this Christmastide.