Over the course of the past few years, Bob Dylan has been busy answering the musical question: “What would American popular music sound like if Elvis Presley had never left Sun Records?”. In his wonderfully eccentric radio show on the XM satellite network, Dylan has turned himself into the slightly cranky conservator of a tradition of popular music that has been unsullied by the rank commercialism that arguably got started when Elvis signed with RCA. It spans country, blues, and even Tin Pan Alley, the only common denominator being that you’ve probably not heard any of it until Dylan put in on the air.
Dylan’s own records over the last ten years or so can best be described as imagining how that tradition might have evolved had it not morphed into the dominant musical idiom on the planet. Imagine that American pop music had just been allowed to go its own winding way in the gin-joints and music halls of rural America, and you get a sense of what Dylan has been up to. The records have been well-received, they have sold remarkably well, but they have been singularities: not quite rock and roll, not quite blues, not quite country, not quite anything you can put your finger on, but all driven by Dylan’s peculiarly conservative vision.
Now along comes Christmas in the Heart, which is Dylan’s contribution to that most transparently commercial of musical genres — the Christmas album. When I heard that Dylan was going to be releasing a Christmas album, I have to admit that my heart sank. Hadn’t we Dylanophiles suffered enough in the late ’70s and early ’80s when Dylan decided that he was born again, and released songs with uplifting titles such as “God Gave Names to All the Animals” and “Property of Jesus”?
As I pondered what a Dylan Christmas album might sound like, I hypothesized that perhaps Dylan would dig deep into the treasure trove of lost Americana for Christmas songs that no one had ever heard of. Perhaps Blind Willie McTell had a cache of plaintive yuletide blues numbers that Dylan would reintroduce to the world. Surely the man who has taught us never to expect anything but the unexpected would not be lending his voice to the same ditties that begin to pollute the malls and grocery stores of North America three nanoseconds after Halloween. Please, God, not “The Little Drummer Boy”!
The good news is that I can’t imagine the muzak programmers of any mall that I have ever been in choosing to air Dylan’s battered, craggy voice to entice shoppers into Pottery Barn or the Gap. But when the track listing was finally made public in advance of the album’s October release date, the bad news was clear for all to see. They were all here: “Silver Bells”, “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”, “O Little Town of Bethlehem”, and yes, “The Little Drummer Boy”.
It took me a couple of weeks to screw up the courage to listen to the record in its entirety. Bob has been on a roll of late, but those of us who have followed his career over the decades know that self-parody in the form of another “Self-Portrait”, “Saved”, or “Empire Burlesque” might very well lie just around the corner.
Having marshaled all of my inner resources and finally confronted the thing, I am happy to report that “Christmas in the Heart” is …. not awful! Dylan has summoned some members of his crack backing band, as well as David Hidalgo of Los Lobos, and they have rooted the songs deeply in the American popular idiom that he has championed of late. The jazz and r&b guitarist Phil Upchurch, who to my knowledge has never worked with Dylan before, adds some understated jazzy fills to the proceedings. And the strangely effective, at times somewhat eerie back-up vocals sound like something that would have come over the radio in the ’30s.
About Dylan’s voice, I will pass over quickly in the spirit of yuletide generosity. Suffice it to say that no one need ever be embarrassed again at lending their gruff tuneless voice to family singalongs.
About two thirds of the way through the record, it hit me. What Dylan is doing in this record is perfectly of a piece with the process of reclamation that he has been undertaking on his radio show, and on underrated early-90s albums of folk covers “Good as I Been to You” and “World Gone Wrong”. Many of the songs collected here are in fact American classics, written by the likes of Gene Autry, Sammy Cahn, and Buck Ram (who wrote many of the Platters’ great hits, like “Only You”). They have been rendered almost impossible to listen to by generations of mall-ready arrangements that have drenched them in strings and saccharine and disembodied, character-less vocals. Dylan plays the songs straight and true, and provides us with a glimpse of what the canon of Christmas songs might have sounded like in the popular culture of the alternate universe Dylan has inhabited over the last 20 years or so.
Nowhere is this more obvious and poignant than in the version of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” included here. It was originally written for Judy Garland, who sang it in the movie “Meet Me in St. Louis”. It is a profoundly sad song, in which a girl tries to cheer her 5 year-old sister up after they have learned that their father would be leaving the family home for a job in New York. It includes the bittersweet line “Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow”. Legend has it that Frank Sinatra asked its author Hugh Martin to “jolly” it up for a version he was planning to record, and it has been handed down to us in its expurgated form. Myself, the very mention of the song conjures up Anne Murray.
Dylan reinstates the original line and sings it sad, and in Dylan’s version you can hear the song again as it may once have sounded, before it got taken up into the shopping mall canon.
Does this mean that “Christmas in the Heart” will be taking its place alongside my Dylan faves, albums like Basement Tapes, Blood on the Tracks and Desire? It does not. Like I said, the album is not awful — but it is far from great. It does, however, make sense in the context of the odd but oddly wonderful musical project that Dylan has embarked on these last few years.

The Torontonians are coming! No, I don’t mean the Big Bad Leafs. Two of Toronto’s best bands, Do Make Say Think and Apostles of Hustle will be playing withing 48 hours of one another at two of our best venues, Sala Rossa and Il Motore. Check this space for some post-concert impressions next week.

Posted Sunday, November 22nd, 2009 at 9:49 pm
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Response to “Getting into the Christmas Spirit with Weird Uncle Bob”

Besonungrq

Hello Guru, what entice you to post an article. This article was extremely interesting, especially since I was searching for thoughts on this subject last Thursday.

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