december 2011


Amen To All That

Bob Dylan Keeps Christmas Well

By Billy Altman

Bob Dylan
Released 2009

There's an old joke about two psychiatrists who pass each other on the street. As they do, they nod and say "Hello." By the end of the block, they're both thinking, "Hmm, I wonder what he meant by that."

I think it's safe to say that, were he so inclined, Bob Dylan would probably be having himself a merry little "Ho ho ho" surveying all the furrowed-brow commentary surrounding the "meaning" of his Christmas In The Heart. The CD, whose royalty proceeds benefit the needy through the Feeding America program, finds Dylan delivering disarmingly straightforward renditions of fifteen Yuletide tunes, including such classics as "Here Comes Santa Claus," "Winter Wonderland," "Silver Bells" and "Hark The Herald Angels Sing," all of which have been part of our collective consciousness since everyone's childhood.

That, of course, includes his own, which is why it doesn't come as a surprise (at least not to this listener) that Dylan treats the material as transparently as possible: there's real tradition involved in Christmas-themed music, stretching from matters of faith and community to matters of composition and songwriting. And as he's periodically demonstrated throughout his near half-century in the public eye, Dylan  is an artist who at his core really does understand and respect the value of tradition: After all, his very first album in 1962 was filled with blues, country and gospel covers, as were 1970's Self-Portrait and '92's Good As I Been To You and '93's World Gone Wrong, and anyone familiar with his satellite radio show knows just what a great music student this great music maker is.

Dylan’s version of Brave Combo’s ‘90s polka version of ‘Must Be Santa,’ an ‘Old McDonald’-styled number originally recorded by pop singalong king Mitch Miller in 1961.

To that end, one of the real treats on Christmas In The Heart is its one uptempo track, "Must Be Santa," which some may know as an "Old McDonald"-styled number recorded by pop singalong king Mitch Miller (issued on 1961’s Holiday Sing-Along With Mitch Miller, which, amazingly, remains in print) way back when. In the 1990s, though, it was transformed into a hootin' 'n' hollerin' dancefloor stomp by the finest polka band ever to come out of Denton, Texas--the very aptly named Brave Combo--and in a perfect example of the "folk process" at work, Dylan and his crackerjack band lift the Combo's arrangement lock stock and (beer) barrel. Yet there's also a discernible touch of klezmer music here that also connects some neat cultural (polka) dots, since Bob Dylan, as most folks know, was born and raised Jewish in Minnesota under his given name Robert Zimmerman. It should be noted that in his lone interview for this album, for the homeless publication The Big Issue, Dylan fully credits Brave Combo as the source of his version of the song--and, for good measure, expresses his familiarity and overall appreciation of their work. ("They're a regional band out of Texas that takes regular songs and changes the way you think about them. You oughta hear their version of 'Hey Jude.'") (Ed. note: Brave Combo’s/Bob Dylan’s “Must Be Santa” bears a striking resemblance to the late, great Mel Blanc’s classic Yuletide single from 1953, “Christmas Tree.”)

snowmanIf you want to keep traveling down this path, you can also point to the Hawaiian flavored "Christmas Island"--a natural choice not only because it lets Dylan showcase band member Don Herron's aces-up steel guitar, but also because this arrangement nods towards the version once recorded by the fine out-of-his-time musical eccentric Leon Redbone--another unique artist that Dylan has long admired. (In a Rolling Stone interview in 1974, Dylan said that if he ever had a label, Redbone would be the first person he'd sign.)

As you can no doubt tell from these last few paragraphs, it doesn't take much for a Dylanophile to fall into sifting sand mode. I mention these sources, again, primarily to underscore the deep relationship that Dylan has with Music, with a capital M, because that's what Christmas In The Heart is ultimately all about: the music of Christmas, in all its many forms. That ranges here from solemn hymns such as "The First Noel" and "O Come All Ye Faithful," to secular songs like "Must Be Santa" and Christmas Blues," and even some that tie together the holiday season with times of war, such as "I'll Be Home For Christmas," the 1943 Bing Crosby hit that resonated with so many soldiers fighting overseas in World War II ("I'll be home for Christmas--if only in my dreams").

From Christmas In the Heart, Bob Dylan performs ‘Little Drummer Boy’: ‘It is simply remarkable--in its simplicity, in its earnestness, and in its humble message.’

Granted, Dylan's now ultra-weathered voice may strike some listeners the wrong way, especially when framed as they are on many tracks here by the youthful mixed choir singing behind him. But, as he once famously told that "Mr. Jones"-style reporter from Time magazine during the mid-'60s documentary film Don't Look Back, he's still a "good" singer. Yes, you have to listen hard, but he really does hit all the notes on all these songs. And see if you can make it through "Little Drummer Boy" and not be seriously moved by his performance. It is simply remarkable--in its simplicity, in its earnestness, and in its humble message. 

So. At Christmas time in 2009, true believer (of the soul of man) Bob Dylan was wishing us peace on earth--if we just follow the light. As per the final word heard on "O Little Town of Bethlehem," the final song of this wonderful little gift of an album: Amen.

Bob Dylan’s Christmas In the Heart is available at

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
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