Fans have been puzzled and troubled by Bob Dylan’s new Christmas album. To help figure out what Dylan is doing, we turned to Sean Wilentz — he’s the official historian at the official website BobDylan.com, and he also teaches American history at Princeton. He’s written many books, including "The Age of Reagan."
Q. "Christmas in the Heart" opens with "Here Comes Santa Claus," a Gene Autry song which, I have to say, is one of the most annoying holiday songs ever written, even before Bob Dylan sang it. "Hang your stockings, say your prayers" — is this a joke?
A. It’s not a joke at all. This is Bob Dylan looking back to his own childhood. He sings the songs that he heard as a kid in Hibbing. He’s recalling that time and those songs and that spirit.
The way Dylan sings "I’ll Be Home for Christmas," it sounds like a threat, a reason to lock your doors.
This song was originally recorded by Bing Crosby in 1943. Christmas songs during World War II had a whole different meaning. They were the music that held people together, wondering whether their boys overseas would come home alive, ever. Then after the war, Christmas music became a way to assert a kind of normality, which a lot of people in America hadn’t felt since the beginning of the depression. It’s also a sort of tribute to Bing Crosby – 13 of the 15 songs were recorded by Bing Crosby. He doesn’t have Crosby’s voice, but he’s copying Bing Crosby’s phrasing, which I know he admires.
"Must Be Santa" features David Hidalgo of Los Lobos from East L.A. on accordion.
It’s my favorite song on the album. It’s a polka – it recalls the great polka bands of the Midwest in the 1940s and 1950s, people like Frankie Yankovic and Whoopee John Wilfahrt. And you should see the video – wild!
On "Winter Wonderland," Bob sounds like your grizzled old uncle at the family party who’s had a little too much of the alcoholic egg nog.
I think that’s exactly the point. However this is the first time "Winter Wonderland" has been done with a pedal steel guitar. There are touches of the current Bob Dylan here along with what Bob Dylan was hearing when he was seven years old.
As for Bob’s "Little Town of Bethlehem," I can only say "there must be some way outa here."
This is not one of my favorite cuts on the album. People from Frank Sinatra to Ray Charles to Barbra Streisand have recorded Christmas albums, but some of the songs are difficult, and this is one of them.
This album is puzzling and troubling to fans – but Bob has often pulled the rug out from under fans who thought they had him pegged. He has often refused to fulfill his fans’ wishes and expectations. Maybe this is another one of those moves.
You could see it that way. Another thing is that this is a cover album, and whenever Bob does a cover album, it means a change is gonna come. It’s him trying to locate something in himself, and this is the way he does it – by singing other people’s songs.
Bob is 68 – he’s seen a lot of Christmases. But wait a minute, when he was growing up didn’t his family celebrate Hanukah?
When he was growing up in Hibbing, everybody listened to Christmas songs, including the Jews. But this is Bob’s first Christian album since "Shot of Love." This is about his beliefs. He’s a Christian — of a very weird kind.
On "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," you can say that Bob Dylan isn’t singing, he’s croaking. But when Tom Waits croaks, a lot of us think it’s great.
Absolutely. You’re used to hearing these songs sung by Nat King Cole or Perry Como. Bob Dylan here is adding a new dimension to Christmas music — with a voice that is infinitely recognizable. And it’s not just the voice, which at some times falters; it’s also about the phrasing. It’s a much more complicated record than a lot of people realize – especially since this song, like all the others, has been sung by dozens of performers. With most Bob Dylan songs, at least since, say, the "John Wesley Harding" album, he’s just about the only one who does them. They’re his songs. Now he has to go up against the entire galaxy of American singers. He has to add something new to a tradition, and that’s part of what’s going on here. It sounds schmaltzy and innocuous – but with Bob Dylan, even at his most schmaltzy, nothing is to be taken at face value.