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Vol. LXIII, No. 51
Wednesday, December 23, 2009
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Record Review

Must Be Dylan: Songs From the Heart of the Season Help Feed a Hungry World

Stuart Mitchner

These songs are part of my life, just like folk songs.

Bob Dylan

Touring YouTube after listening to Bob Dylan’s Christmas in the Heart (Columbia), I started with the hardest rocking Christmas song I know. Written by the poet laureate of North London, Ray Davies, and performed by Ray and the Kinks, “Father Christmas” is about the mugging of the title character by a gang of poor kids who don’t want presents, just “Give us some money/Don’t mess around with those silly toys/We’ll beat you up if you don’t hand it over.” They tell him to give the toys to “the little rich boys” (“We don’t want a jigsaw or monopoly money/We only want the real McCoy”). And while you’re at it, “Give my daddy a job ’cause he needs one/He’s got lots of mouths to feed.” It’s a great Kinks song (there’s a blurry video from long ago on YouTube), a passionate, in-your-face, amp-abusing bellringer that closes with a charitable message:

Have yourself a merry merry Christmas
Have yourself a good time
But remember the kids who got nothin’
While you’re drinkin’ down your wine.

Dylan remembers. He’s donating all of his royalties from Christmas in the Heart, in perpetuity, to Feeding America, Crisis UK, and the United Nations’ World Food Program. As for the music, it feels good the same way “Father Christmas” does, and so do the other sounds of the season we listen to, whether it’s Kate Bush’s “December Will Be Magic Again” or the Shepherd’s Chorus from Berlioz’s L’Enfance du Christ, or Van Morrison’s Irish Heartbeat album with the Chieftains. Tapping the mainstream Christmas-in-America songbook, Dylan’s approach is unashamedly traditional, which has not gone down well with either his critics or hardcore protectors of the Legend who seem curiously opposed to the idea of a man steeped in Americana performing an album of songs he was singing with his friends and family before he ever discovered Woody Guthrie. That he omits “White Christmas” may be a symbolic bow to the perennial voice of Christmas, Bing Crosby, even as he, Robert Zimmerman, is staking his claim to the same territory in the consciousness of the culture.

“Must Be Santa”

I was about to express some token regret that Christmas in the Heart doesn’t contain a Dylan original comparable to “Father Christmas,” something with bite and ironic bluster like “It’s All Good” on his last album Together Through Life. Then I realized that though he didn’t write “Must Be Santa,” Dylan (doubling as producer “Jack Frost”) managed to customize it for his band. This loose and lively polka is also the most exhilarating piece of work I saw on my YouTube tour. If you’re feeling low, or even if you’re feeling high, take a look. Driven by David Hidalgo’s buoyant accordion and directed by Australian stunt man/actor/director Nash Edgerton, it’s a little less than three minutes of splendid delirium, life kicking up its heels, wild and wanton, a treat for the eyes and ears. Toward the end, a less pleasant form of chaos intervenes as a rogue male appears out of nowhere, throws things, swings from a chandelier, crashes through a window (a party crasher in reverse, perhaps played by the ex-stunt man director), and flees into the night, leaving a bewigged Dylan and Santa side by side looking bemused, like, “Who was that masked man?” The sudden entrance of that manic figure may be Dylan’s way of signaling his awareness that all is not well outside the festive zone of Christmas party America.

The old-fashioned gentility of Christmas in the Heart’s cover image of a horse-drawn sleigh is offset nicely by the back cover’s 1950s-style pin-up of Betty Page in a Santa suit, high-heeled fur-lined boots, low-cut top, and gartered holiday hosiery holding a miniature Santa in the palm of her hand.

Rescue Mission

Since much of the material covered on the album is played to death in supermarkets and shopping malls at this time of year, it’s good to have the songs rescued and refreshed by a voice as unique as Dylan’s and by seasonal motifs, backing vocals, and succinct, tasteful playing that subtly evoke traditional arrangements. Anyone who was moved by Dylan’s singing of “Sugar Baby” on Love and Theft (2001) or “When the Deal Goes Down” on Modern Times (2006) will hear him giving the same emotional attention to his covers of “Silver Bells” and “The First Noël.” As Rolling Stone’s David Fricke says, “his roots are all over the place.” But don’t let the space consumed by his voice distract you from what’s going on in the background. For instance, Dylan’s sensitive arrangement of “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” or Donnie Herron’s playing on “Christmas Song.”

Favorite Christmas Present

On there’s an interview about Christmas in the Heart wherein Bill Flanagan asks Dylan what his favorite Christmas present was (see this week’s Town Talk). “A sled” says Dylan, who, after all, grew up in northern Minnesota. More interesting is his response to a question about reviewers looking for “ironic content” amid the seasonal sentiment: “Critics like that are on the outside looking in. They are definitely not fans or the audience that I play to. They would have no gut level understanding of me and my work, what I can and can’t do — the scope of it all. Even at this point in time they still don’t know what to make of me.” When Flanagan mentions a review declaring that the record “needs more irreverence,” Dylan calls it “an irresponsible statement …. Isn’t there enough irreverence in the world? Who would need more? Especially at Christmas time.”

The other video on Dylan’s website accompanies his rendition of “Little Drummer Boy.” A calmer, more friends-and-family-oriented It’s a Wonderful Life version of the “Must Be Santa” party scene, it’s the work of artist/filmmaker Jeff Scher, who, according to Rolling Stone, rotoscoped classic films and home movies with watercolors and crayons.

Bob Dylan’s way of challenging the audience he speaks of playing to may be as simple as making them grow to appreciate a voice they at first find distractingly extreme, or it may be as simple as making them enter a realm they associate with the corniest and most commercial aspects of the Christmas season, so that as soon as they hear the jingling of sleighbells on the first song, “Here Comes Santa Claus,” some are tempted to turn their hero off rather than allow him to subject himself and his listeners to such indignities.

Referring to Dylan’s singing of “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” Bill Flanagan says, “I don’t want to put you on the spot, but you sure deliver that song like a true believer.” To which Dylan replies, “Well, I am a true believer.” Asked why he picked the charities he did, he says, “Because they get food straight to the people. No military organization, no bureaucracy, no governments to deal with.”

And no Father Christmas dispensing silly toys when there are “lots of mouths to feed.”

So you either accept that Dylan’s the “true believer” he says he is and open your minds, your ears, your hearts, and your pocketbooks, or you wait for the next album and hope that he’ll give you what you want or, better yet, what you need.

Let It Grow

My first thought was to write about Chet Baker, who was born 80 years ago today, but the more I thought about the context, it didn’t make sense to devote a Christmas column to a character as ambiguous and, well, unseasonal, as Baker. I didn’t think of writing about Christmas in the Heart until I heard it playing in an area record store and listened in on the conversation between a sales clerk and a customer, who was making fun of it. “Tell you what,” said the clerk, “it kinda grows on you after awhile.”

And it does, if you give it a chance.

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