“When I was growing up, Billy Graham was very popular. He was the greatest preacher and evangelist of my time — that guy could save souls and did. I went to two or three of his rallies in the ’50s or ’60s. This guy was like rock ’n’ roll personified — volatile, explosive. He had the hair, the tone, the elocution — when he spoke, he brought the storm down. Clouds parted. Souls got saved, sometimes 30 or 40,000 of them. If you ever went to a Billy Graham rally back then, you were changed forever. There’s never been a preacher like him. He could fill football stadiums before anybody. He could fill Giants Stadium more than even the Giants football team. Seems like a long time ago. Long before Mick Jagger sang his first note or Bruce strapped on his first guitar — that’s some of the part of rock ’n’ roll that I retained. I had to. I saw Billy Graham in the flesh and heard him loud and clear.”
~Bob Dylan speaking to AARP magazine in 2015
BILL FLANAGAN: 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.
~Bob Dylan speaking to Bill Flanagan about the “Christmas in the Heart” album. The album benefits homeless charities and this interview was published in the UK in the “Big Issue” magazine which helps unemployed and homeless people to rehabilitate.
In 2009, Bob Dylan released an album of traditional Christmas songs. Since then I’ve written about it on three occasions and I thought that I had nothing more to say on the subject but then I read a couple of comments that I didn’t really understand and it got me to ruminating on the album again.
My previous articles can be found here:
An Indepth Look at Bob Dylan’s Christmas in the Heart
Dylan in Advent – A Second Look at Christmas in the Heart
Christmas in the Heart – Third Time Around
So, what sparked my interest this time and got me writing again? Well, I read a couple of articles on the internet which said, fairly directly, that “Christmas in the Heart” reveals nothing about what Bob Dylan believes. One even paid reference to the above Bill Flanagan interview and commented that whilst Dylan said he was a true believer; he didn’t say what he was a true believer in… Mmm… Let’s see…
I’ve already confessed – no need to confess again (Bob Dylan – Thunder on the Mountain from “Modern Times” 2006)
Let’s take a trail through the story so far as it pertains to what Bob Dylan believes… In 1978, around the time of his “Street Legal” album, Dylan began to take a renewed interest in the Bible and the subject of salvation – although it would seem that those subjects are never far from his thoughts. In 1979, he attended a Bible school with connections to the Vineyard Fellowship and released the first of three gospel-themed albums, “Slow Train Coming”. A tour followed which included only gospel songs (the set would be mostly made up of songs from “Slow Train…” and the album that was released the following year) and with few exceptions was savaged by music critics and those who had been involved in the counter-culture of the Sixties.
The second album of this “phase”, “Saved” was received much less kindly than the first and the reviews followed the tone of the tour rather than the preceding album.
A third album, 1981s “Shot of Love” was seen has a more mixed affair and some songs, particularly “Every Grain of Sand”, were seen as a return to form. The tour that followed mixed in older songs with the gospel material and people were intrigued to see what would happen next.
1982 had very little Dylan activity and there were rumours that Dylan had rejected Christianity, and that he had embraced a more formal Judaism than before and there is no question that albums like “Infidels” and “Empire Burlesque” which included songs with particular Biblical references were initially interpreted in light of these rumours. His 1984 tour was a return to a Greatest Hits format which was then embraced with enthusiasm but is now regarded by most Dylan listeners as rather uninteresting.
The problem with the rumours and those theories was partially to do withDylan’s silence, partially do with his ambiguous comments in interviews (nothing new there then) and were rather contradicted by what he then what he had to say in 1986 when he was touring with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers:
“…this is a song about my hero, everybody’s got their own hero. I don’t know who your hero is…maybe Mel Gibson. Right, let’s hear it for Mel Gibson. Where I come from maybe it would be Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen… oh, anyway, I don’t care nothing about any of those people. I have my own hero. I’m going to sing you about my hero now. (musical intro) When they came for him in the garden, did they know? When they came him for him in the garden, did they know? Did they know he was the Son of God? Did they that he was Lord?”
~(Bob Dylan, spoken introduction to “In the Garden on the 1986 official video “Hard to Handle)
All of a sudden it could have been 1979 or 1980 all over again. The Australian media were bemused, and this showed itself in the questions they asked at conferences aimed at promoting the tour. Here they asked him about the kind of artists he admired:
“If they don’t do something kinda gospel, I don’t trust that artist. I don’t care who he is”
~Bob Dylan, Press conference, 1986
Interestingly Tom Petty saw great value for Dylan’s audience in his performances and the way he refused to be pigeon-holed:
BILL DeYOUNG: Right after your second set, after Ronnie Wood came out for “Rainy Day Women,” then there was a Jesus song. I could feel the momentum dive.
TOM PETTY: Yeah, but see, you’re still talking about it. You know what, the Beach Boys wouldn’t-a done that. They’ve have probably just steamrollered that baby to the end like Bruce Springsteen. But that’s not what we’re doing. That’s not what this is about. He had something to say at that point. This ain’t show business, man. This ain’t show business. That’s Bob Dylan. He had something to say at that point. He had something to say about Jesus right then. He sang “Like a Rolling Stone,” right? He’d already done that. Listen, man, you gotta dig that there’s a lot of great songs about Jesus. David Lee Roth might not want to do that. But I admire a man that’s confident enough in himself to do that. And I tell you what, nobody left.
MIKE CAMPBELL: He does that on purpose. I know what you mean by momentum. It builds up and it’s boogie till you puke. Bob doesn’t want to boogie till he pukes.
~(Tom Petty and Mike Campbell interviewed 1986)
After that Dylan included contemplative songs and songs of faith on his albums and in his live sets. Hymns like “Rock of Ages” and “Pass Me Not, O Gentle Saviour” were in his live shows as well as gospel country inflected numbers like “I am the Man, Thomas”. “Somebody Touched Me” and “A Voice From on High”. These songs are not ones that arose from a smorgasbord of religious backgrounds but purely from the pens of Christian songwriters. Even when he performed for a Jewish telethon at the request of his relative Peter Himmelman, it was evident that for every Jewish song (Hava Nagila) there was a Christian one (Hank Williams’ Thank God).
Albums like “Knocked Out Loaded”, “Oh Mercy”, Time Out of Mind” and “Tempest” cannot be really understood without reference to the New Testament and the gospel song idiom. Even projects later than “Christmas in the Heart” show this. The albums of standards – Shadows in the Night, Fallen Angels, Triplicate – seem to have been driven from the point where Dylan began to include the psalmodic, hymn-like song “Stay with Me” in his live set. Notably, this song arose originally in an Otto Preminger-directed film about a Christian Priest.
When I was studying statistics, we were told about “spurious correlations”. These were points on a graph which seemed to show something significant but ultimately revealed nothing of worth. My argument is that if you look at Dylan’s development as a songwriter, performer and artist in the years between 1981 and today, the spurious points that reveal nothing are the rumours of 1982-83 and not all the many indicators of faith which seem clear to me and which seem clearly connected to his earlier profession.
However, I do want to argue that there have been changes in Dylan’s outlook over those years and these are very significant. In 1978-79, Dylan was looking at faith in the Jesus of the New Testament from the perspective of what he learned in a Gentile Bible college. In the intermediate years, his Jewishness became once more important to him but if this is true, we must conclude that he sees his faith through the perspective of an observant Jewish Christian. There is really no evidence to suggest that Mr Dylan ever abandoned his belief in Jesus (as the 1986 material above shows quite clearly) but there is no question that he deliberately wanted to back away from the strident views of the late 70s and early 80s and allow his audience to think carefully about the broad range of his songwriting and recording without that polarisation.
There is also no question that this has also allowed his listeners to find a new appreciation of his music. Surprisingly and notably, here we mention the appreciation that was lavished on the live box set of his gospel period – the very tour that was derided at the time. Now people spoke of this being one of the most exciting and creative live tours of his career – even though many could not see the same merit in the “Saved” album. Now though they mostly disliked that album, it was putdown to issues of “poor production”. At the time of the box set’s release, noted Dylan biographer, Clinton Heylin released a detail ed examination of the period called “Trouble in Mind” (named after a B-side from the period). The title of the box set sounded almost like a retort – “Trouble No More”. The title had the resounding feel of the proclamation of salvation achieved. Time to stop talking of a Christian phase and time to consider this an era of gospel music.
It is also to be noted that out of the official “Bootleg Series”, “Trouble No More” is one of the few to include additional new material. This is a short film on DVD where the original “sermons” between songs are removed and replaced by an actor playing a preacher giving thoughts on matters that sound something like the seven deadly sins (but not in any exact sense). They are certainly more mature than Dylan’s apocalyptic ramblings of the early years of his faith.
Well, this is all very nice, Mr Writer, sir, even if I don’t agree with you but what the Dickens does it have to do with “Christmas in the Heart”? We naively though that is what you were going to inform us about…
Well, yes indeed and I’m very glad you mentioned Dickens because it is with Charles that we must start if we are to correctly understand the belief-related elements of this album.
As we have noted elsewhere, the title of Mr Dylan’s album is lifted from Mr Dicken’s seminal short story, “A Christmas Carol. In Prose, Being a Ghost Story of Christmas” and echoes the words of the redeemed Ebenezer Scrooge:
“I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year”
A Christmas Carol was published in December 1843 and sales continued to climb in 1844 (and ever since). What I have not previously noted in my earlier articles is that Dickens’ friend, Douglas Jerrold, in the same year, wrote of a merchant who kept a Christmas of the belly and insisted that his readers should keep “The Christmas of the Heart”. The first Christmas card was published in the same year and carried the same message. The well-read Mr Zimmerman is no doubt aware of some if not all of these facts and quite clearly chose the title of his album carefully to fit in a with a theme that was prevalent in the earlier era – which became known as the “hungry forties”.
This chimes in entirely and consistently with the primary purpose of the “Christmas in the Heart” album. The promotion and push towards a higher profile of the celebration of the birth of Christ in the 1840s had little to do with the desire to raise the awareness of the nativity and the Christian religion. Rather it used religion and faith and targeted them towards an increased awareness of the plight of the poor and hungry. Bob Dylan’s album entered the marketplace explicitly to make sure that the needy were fed. This compassionis the first thing that “Christmas in the Heart” reveals to us he believes in.
But then there is the fact that he chose the self-same mode as “A Christmas Carol” by setting his efforts like Dickens’ in the midst of the celebration of a Christmas festival. He could have chosen to record a celebration of Hanukkah which has its own tradition of music, ancient and modern. He could have recorded an album of Christmas music which chose standards and avoided songs that spoke of the nativity – but he did not. There are albums like that around. One I have in my collection of seasonal music is by British rock singer, Judie Tzuke and her daughters (they style themselves “The Tzukettes”). This release doesn’t touch any song written in the last forty years but religiously avoids any mention of virgin with child or Bethlehem.
Dylan has a very different approach and especially a different one than might fit the expectations of anyone who bought into those 1980s rumours that he had abandoned Christian faith. Since this album was released, he has, of course, allowed the release of the extensive aforementioned box set of his gospel tours – hardly the sign of an artist reflecting on a period he abhors and regrets. I read an article which talked of Dylan’s Christian trilogy recently, only then to reveal he was speaking of “Slow Train Coming”, “Saved” and “Christmas in the Heart” and it is clear that there is at least as much explicit expression of Christian faith on this album as there was on “Shot of Love”.
During my studies and research as well as exploring William Shakespeare and Charles Dickens, I have spent several years being formally educated in Old Testament Hebrew and New Testament Greek and it is the connection of the background of these languages with our own English tongue which emphasises where Mr Dylan is coming from here.
The New Testament gospels claimed that Jesus had come from God and was God (see especially the prologue to John’s Gospel). The Jewish people of the Old Testament expected an agent to come from God at an appointed time whom the writings of the Rabbis and teachers styled as the Messiah (מָשִׁיחַ). Those who followed Jesus identified this Messiah with the Suffering Servant of the prophecy that is found in the writings of Isaiah and so when the accounts of Jesus’ life were written he was given the Greek title which in English is Christ (Χριστός) which is the Greek translation of the Hebrew word Messiah.
Mr Dylan could have chosen any number of songs which celebrated a secular Christmas. He could have chosen songs which were likely to have been sung in his boyhood home and which resonated with him and spoke of that time. Rather he chooses in the sections of this album that reflect on faith, songs that speak specifically of the Christ and identify with the one that is born of Mary the Virgin. Jesus is never mentioned by name in this album – after all his name whilst prescribed by the angel who came from God would not be announced for some time after his birth as was the custom amongst Jewish people – but again and again he is clearly identified as the Messiah, the Christ.
“God and sinners reconciled…
with angelic hosts proclaim Christ is born in Bethlehem”
(Hark the Herald the Angels Sing)
“O Come Ye, O Come Ye to Bethlehem
Come and behold him, born the King of Angels
O Come let us adore him… Christ the Lord…
Glory to God in the highest
O Come let us adore him… Christ the Lord
(O Come All Ye Faithful)
Noel, noel… born is the King of Israel
(The First Noel)
In the dark streets shine in everlasting light….
The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee to night…
God imparts to human hearts the blessings
of all his heaven,
no ear may hear his coming but in this world of sin
Where meek souls will receive him still
The dear Christ enters in
(O Little Town of Bethlehem)
There is no question that if Mr Dylan had wanted to avoid suggesting (again) that the baby born to Mary at Bethlehem was come from God and was the Christ, the Jewish Messiah and fulfilment of prophecy, he could have chosen and taken an easier route.
But there are even more linguistic problems in these lines that Dylan has chosen than merely the term “Christ”. He says he is the King of Israel and that he is to be adored. That he is come from God and God’s angels have announced his coming. If he doesn’t wish to tell us anything of what he believes then he has approached this album in an extraordinarily clumsy fashion.
And then the use of the word Lord for the Christ. Lord in New Testament Greek is κύριος and many scholars think this was the early apostles way of assigning to Jesus the claim that he was not only from God but that he was God and that it was a rendering of the Hebrew divine name (יהוה).
Even the Amen at the end of O Little Town is troubling. It is a word constantly on the lips of Jesus. It stems from Hebrew but also appears in the Greek New Testament text. Where it proceeds a saying of Jesus, it means verily or firmly or I assure you. When it comes at the end of a prayer or a saying, it means so let it be. It is not just a convenient way of closing the habitual things that are said in churches. We would do well to consider what Dylan is affirming or saying “so, let it be” to.
But we must note that this is not a religious album. It has, as I have suggested before three primary themes, which for the sake of being alliterative we can present as faith, family and fun. This is, after all, the album with Bettie Page on the inside sleeve in a saucy Santa pose (the sweet Bettie never did appear in too many religious publications) It is the album with a picture of a couple descending a hillside on a one-horse open sleigh. But it also the album with the illustration of Wise Men (Magi) seeking the Christ on the back cover.
When “Shot of Love” was released Dylan condemned critics who saw it only as a “religious” album. Whilst there were songs that spoke of his faith (Every Grain of Sand, Property of Jesus etc.), there was much more than that which made up the record. In later years, even less careful writers would speak of “Every Grain of Sand” as a move towards pantheism on Dylan’s part. This, of course, was a nonsense then and now.
“Christmas in the Heart” cannot either be painted into a religious corner (even if more recent interviews suggest that Mr Dylan is somewhat more relaxed about that word than he was in 1981…
“I wanted to make something more religious,” he says. “I just didn’t have enough [religious songs]. Intentionally, specifically religious songs is what I wanted to do. That takes a lot more concentration to pull that off 10 times with the same thread — than it does with a record like I ended up with.”
~(speaking about his “Tempest” album in 2012)
It has more than faith going on than that but to say this album tells us nothing of what he believes is very strange indeed. He believes in compassion, he believes in helping the hungry… oh, and it would seem that he believes that the baby born at Bethlehem is the Jewish Messiah…
“Something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is, do you…”
“But you know, you’ve got to serve somebody, it might be the devil, or it might be the Lord but you know you’ve got to serve somebody”
(Lines taken from songs sung back-to-back by Bob Dylan in his most recent concert)