Podcast / Start Making Sense / Dec 28, 2023

Katha Pollitt’s End-of-Year Giving List—Plus Bob Dylan’s Christmas Album

On this episode of the Start Making Sense podcast, Gaza aid is number one on our list; plus Sean Wilentz explains Dylan’s holiday song selection.

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Katha Pollitt’s End-of-Year Giving List, plus Bob Dylan’s Xmas Album | Start Making Sense with Jon Wiener
byThe Nation Magazine

Our holiday giving list: Katha Pollitt presents her list of groups that need—and deserve—our support: Gaza aid, abortion assistance, and organizing against Trump.

Also: Bob Dylan fans have been puzzled and troubled by his Christmas album ever since he released it in 2009. To help figure out what Dylan was doing, we turned to Sean Wilentz. He’s the official historian at BobDylan.com, and he also teaches history at Princeton.

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A boy searches through buildings, destroyed during Israeli air raids in the southern Gaza Strip on November 10, 2023, in Khan Yunis, Gaza.

A boy searches through buildings, destroyed during Israeli air raids in the southern Gaza Strip on November 10, 2023 in Khan Yunis, Gaza.

(Ahmad Hasaballah / Getty)

On this episode of the Start Making Sense podcast, we bring you our holiday giving list. From humanitarian aid in Gaza, to abortion assistance, and organizing against Trump. Katha Pollitt explains her list of groups that need and deserve our support.

Also on this episode: Bob Dylan fans have been puzzled and troubled by his Christmas album ever since he released it in 2009. To help figure out what Dylan was doing, we turned to Sean Wilentz. He’s the official historian at BobDylan.com, and he also teaches history at Princeton.

The Nation Podcasts
The Nation Podcasts

Here's where to find podcasts from The Nation. Political talk without the boring parts, featuring the writers, activists and artists who shape the news, from a progressive perspective.

The Abortion Pill Underground, plus Can Dems Hold the Senate? | Start Making Sense
byThe Nation Magazine

Since Roe was overturned, pregnant people seeking abortions in Red states have found help from providers operating at the edge of the law. Amy Littlefield reports.

Also: Democrats in the Senate are going to lose the seat vacated by Joe Manchin in West Virginia — can they hold all the others in November? John Nichols has our analysis, starting with Maryland, where Democrat Angela Alsobrooks will face Republican ‘moderate’ Larry Hogan, the popular anti-Trump former governor.

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Jon Wiener: From The Nation magazine, this is Start Making Sense.  I’m Jon Wiener, with the holiday edition of our show. Later in the hour: Bob Dylan’s Christmas album–he released it in 2009; we’re still trying to understand it. Sean Wilentz will help–he’s historian in residence at the official BobDylan.com website.  But first: It’s been a rough year. Katha Pollitt has put together a list of groups that need, and deserve, our assistance, starting in Gaza. That’s coming up, in a minute.
In December of every year, Katha Pollitt publishes her list of groups that need and deserve our support. This year, her list starts, of course, in Gaza. And Katha, of course, is a poet, essayist and award-winning columnist for The Nation. She also writes for The New York Times, The Atlantic and The New Yorker. We reached her today at home in Manhattan. Katha, welcome back.

Katha Pollitt: Thanks so much for having me on the show.

JW: I know it’s work, it’s a lot of work to figure out where are the best places to give money to, especially when the year has been so rough, and the needs are so great. Number one on our list this year, of course, is Gaza, but the problem is finding who is doing the most significant relief work, helping the people who have survived Israeli attack, had their homes destroyed, and are facing shortages of water, food, and medicine. I was especially grateful that you found the really important one, an indispensable organization that I’m embarrassed to say I knew nothing about before I read your column. Tell us about number one on your end-of-year giving list: it’s called American Near East Refugee Aid. A-N-E-R-A. ANERA.

KP: Yeah. Well, I took the recommendation of my friend, the award-winning Gazan poet, Mosab Abu Toha. I think he knows what he’s talking about. And ANERA, which one thing I really liked about it, it has no religious or political affiliations. That’s a definite plus in my book. And it works on relief and development in Gaza, the West Bank, Lebanon and Jordan. So right now, it’s seeking donations to support blood banks in Gaza and provide displaced families with nourishing meals and hygiene kits. And there’ll be more as needs evolve as they surely will.

So I think they’re very reputable and good, and you don’t have to worry about your money landing in the hands of the wrong people. Because you know Jon, whenever there’s a big crisis, there are all these people sort of retooling themselves so that, oh yeah, ‘we’re really doing that, we’re doing the thing you’re caring about right this minute.’ But it’s hard to know if they’re actually doing that.

JW: Yeah, ANERA has been doing this since the late 60s, helping Palestinian refugees in Jordan and the West Bank in Lebanon, and especially in Gaza. I looked up their website, it’s fascinating to see how they do this. They’re quite a big group as well as quite a long-lasting group. Of course, the number one issue they face is that Hamas wants to control the supply of food and medicine coming in, and so their website explains what they do about this. Of course, because the US State Department has designated Hamas as a terrorist group, anybody who intentionally aids Hamas gets banned and put out of business in the United States.

So that’s not an issue. The issue is Hamas intercepting the aid that ANERA is delivering, and they answer that directly at their website. They say, “We have protective measures in place to ensure that our aid is safely delivered to Palestinian civilians and their families.” It has successfully delivered and distributed approved aid into Gaza without any interceptions or disruptions. The biggest problem they face is crowd control from desperate people, which of course we’ve read about, they say has sometimes led to the breakdown of orderly distribution in a few instances. But they have managed to deliver, they say, millions of meals since October 21st when outside aid was permitted, as well as, as you say, hygiene kits, medical aid, blankets and mattresses, pop-up health clinics and organizing activities for the traumatized children.

They have these convoys of trucks that are allowed in and they say, of course, we have a lot more trucks that are waiting to get in. It’s impossible for us to deliver all of this aid rapidly. It is imperative that unlimited aid be allowed in Gaza. They have 12 staff working inside Gaza despite the dangers. So thank you for recommending for year-end giving urgent relief for Palestinians in Gaza, ENERA.org. After Gaza, inside the United States, the biggest disaster the past year has been the complete bans on abortion in, I think it’s 24 states, a staggering number that leaves millions of women denied access to the healthcare they need.

Of course, we right away think of Planned Parenthood, but I consider Planned Parenthood to have plenty of money. I looked up their 2022 annual report, $2 billion in revenue, revenue last year. So I’m interested in groups that do good work on this that don’t have $2 billion and you have a favorite.

KP: Well, I do have a favorite, and I want to say Planned Parenthood deserves every penny of that money, but maybe other places can also need some money. And one of them is The Brigid Alliance, which is a favorite of mine, partly because it’s right here. It’s right here in New York, and I know the people involved, so I know they’re good people and are wise stewards of the money that people give them. What Brigid Alliance does is it does everything, it funds everything but the actual procedure, which other groups fund. It’s a travel service.

So if you’re in a red state or a state where you can’t get an abortion, they will pay your transportation, they’ll pay for your lodging, they’ll pay for your food, they’ll pay for your child care. All the ancillary needs that people don’t often think about when they think, ‘oh yeah, well, if you’re in Texas, you can just go to New York or you can go to Colorado.’ But actually that’s a big project, especially for a poor woman. And most of the women who are traveling are and who need help are quite low income. And may never – what they may need, Brigid Alliance once paid for new tires for the car, the people who are traveling because the car broke down. That sort of thing happens all the time. And so I think they are really a wonderful, wonderful place to give.

JW: Brigid Alliance, that’s B-R-I-G-I-D. Brigidalliance.org. Next biggest crisis of the year has been the rise of Trump. He’s leading in the polls now. He’s ahead in five of the six swing states according to The New York Times poll, he gets higher approval ratings than Joe Biden among core Democratic groups in the Democratic base, young people, people of color, college women, single women. I don’t want to give money to the National Democratic Party or to the Biden campaign. What do you suggest instead?

KP: Well, I have two ideas. One is the Wisconsin Democrats. A lot of state democratic parties are really barely functional. But the Wisconsin Democrats are extremely energetic, and they organize all year round, like remember when there was going to be that fifty-state project of Howard Deans, and that never got off the ground really, but in a few states it did get off the ground. And the Wisconsin Democrats have scored big wins, even though they don’t really control very much in the state government.

They elected, this was amazing, they elected liberal Janet Protasiewicz to the State Supreme Court, which tipped the balance of the court, and then the Republicans wanted to impeach her on these spurious grounds as soon as she took her seat, and they forced the Republicans to abandon that. So that’s a huge win. What is the secret? Relentless year-round organizing. You can’t just parachute in and expect people to get all excited about your candidates, you have to do it all year round and build up a whole network of support. So I’m for them.

JW: I did a little more research on your suggestion. Wisconsin Democrats have 71 county party organizations, 275 local neighborhood action teams. They work year-round, they’ve had a four-year effort, which is culminating in 2024, and what they call Hyper Local Organizing. They recruit candidates to run in every race, including like mayors in city councils of medium-sized cities and towns, especially in places where there’s a threat of a mega takeover of offices that could undermine the 2024 Presidential vote count.

And let’s remember Wisconsin was the tipping point state in 2020, the state where Biden won by the smallest margin. So it’s really important that Trump not win Wisconsin in 2024. And luckily for us, as you say, the Wisconsin Democratic Party is terrific at this, and they’ve been working on it for a long time. Their website is Wisdems, W-I-S-D-E-M-S. No space. Wisdems.org. And you say you have a second one.

KP: I do. I like Black Voters Matter. Now, Black voters led the charge in defeating Trump in 2020. But Republican State officials are making it harder and harder for people in Black communities to access the polls. I’m sure your listeners know about some of these things, you know just making it fewer polling places, and you can’t give people water while they’re standing in these endless lines and making it harder to vote by mail. So Black Voters Matter does the long-term, deep grassroots organizing needed to register these voters, engage them, and support them. And not just on election day, but every day, and in every election, up and down the ticket. It’s very important.

JW: Black Voters Matter. You support them on the web at one word, Blackvotersmatterfund.org. I think we have time for you to mention one more.

KP: Okay. I’m going to mention, this is my sentimental favorite, Alice’s Kids. I found out about this group on Twitter. And what they do is, and they’re really great, what they do is they help poor children who don’t have the basics. And it’s just shocking that in our immensely wealthy country, this should be a problem. Decent shoes and clothes, a warm coat, a backpack, fee to be in an afterschool activity. So what Alice’s Kids – people write to Alice’s Kids teachers and social workers, will write to them and say, “We would like a hundred dollars for this purpose.” And Alice’s Kids, will give it to them. And it helps a lot of people. And I just feel like there is so much trauma associated with poverty. It’s not just having things that you need, it’s the way you’re humiliated by not having them. You can be bullied, people can make fun of you. And if somebody wants to come in and help a child feel good and have the things that the other kids have, that’s really great. So I like them.

JW: Aliceskids.org. So to sum up, Katha’s list for end-of-year giving: For Gaza, ANERA.org. For abortion rights, Brigidalliance.org. To defeat Trump, the Wisconsin Democratic Party, Wisdems.org. And Blackvotersmatterfund.org. And her personal pick, Aliceskids.org. Katha Pollitt: her end-of-year giving list, with another half dozen ideas, is at TheNation.com. Katha, special thanks for this help, and thanks for talking with us today.

KP: Happy holidays to all who celebrate. Thank you for having me on the show, Jon.

JW: This is our Christmas show, and now it’s time for our special Christmas music feature. Our guest is Sean Wilentz. He’s the official historian at the official Bob Dylan website. He also teaches American history at Princeton. He’s written many books, including The Age of Reagan. It’s out now in paperback. We turn to him today to help us understand what the heck is going on with the new Bob Dylan Christmas album. We reached him today in Princeton. Sean, welcome back to the program.

Sean Wilentz: Great to be back, Jon.

JW: I want to start by listening to track one, “Here Comes Santa Claus.” It’s a Gene Autry song, which I have to say is one of the most irritating holiday songs ever written, even before Bob Dylan sang it.
“Hang your stockings, say your prayers.”  Sean, what is this?  Is this a joke of some kind?

SW: No, it’s not a joke at all. Although you could turn it into one by imagining as the person who’s really singing is Vincent Price. It gives a certain macabre aspect to the song. You can look at it that way. You can look at a Bob Dylan song any way you want.  But no, no, no, this is all very, very straight. This is Bob Dylan, in many ways, looking back to his own childhood, and he’s singing the songs that he heard as a kid in Hibbing, where everybody listened to Christmas music, whether you were Jewish or not. He’s recalling those times and those songs in that spirit.

JW: I understand that the album itself is a benefit and that the royalties are all being donated to charity.

SW: In perpetuity, that’s right. The royalties are going to Feed America in the United States, and I think that there’s a group in the UK and there’s another group too, to feed the homeless. Basically, this is Bob Dylan, in some ways, being the character Pretty Boy Floyd from the old Woody Guthrie song. He’s providing Christmas dinner to the families on relief. It’s just that he’s not sticking up a bank. He’s sticking up his own fans.

JW: Let’s listen to another one, “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.” I have to say, when Bob Dylan sings “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” you have to wonder, is this a promise, or is this a threat?
Bob Dylan, “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” – it sounds like a reason to bolt your doors, Sean.

SW: [Laughter] Well, it’s hard to say what home is for Bob Dylan, because he’s on his bus so much of the time. Being home for Christmas is a big deal for him, because he’s not on his bus. But this is part of what the album’s about. That’s a song that was originally recorded by Bing Crosby as were, I think 13 of the 15 songs on this album. It’s sort of his tribute to Bing Crosby among other things.
But in 1943, remember, Christmas songs during World War II had a whole different meaning.  It was very touching, actually, very moving. It was the music actually that kind of held people together, wondering whether their boys, and in some cases girls, overseas, would ever come home alive, ever. This is a very moving song. It was moving in the 40s, and then after the war, Christmas music became a kind of way to assert with some aggressiveness, to assert a kind of normality which people hadn’t felt, a lot of people in America hadn’t felt since the beginning of the Depression back in the early 30s.
He’s trying to recapture that in part, recapture that mood, which is bigger than Christmas, bigger than Christmas in America. It has to do with a specific time in a specific place. It’s also, as I say, a sort of tribute to Bing Crosby. He doesn’t have Bing Crosby’s voice, but he’s copying Bing Crosby’s phrasing, I know he admires Bing Crosby’s phrasing, so that’s his chance to do that too.

JW: Well, let’s listen to another one. Maybe you want to say something about this one, “Must Be Santa”? This one includes our own David Hidalgo, the great East LA musician who’s a big favorite of ours here.

SW: Indeed, from Los Lobos. He’s the man. He’s maybe the most gifted, one of the most gifted musicians that Dylan’s ever worked with. “Must Be Santa” is my favorite song on the album. It’s a polka song. It’s basically ripped off from the arrangement of a Texas rock polka band. But it also recalls, again, his Christmas time, because it recalls the great polka bands of the Midwest of the 1940s and 1950s. People like Whoopee John Wilfahrt – his real name, and Frankie Yankovic.

JW: Would you please spell the last name of Whoopee John Wilfahrt, please?

SW: W-I-L-F-A-H-R-T.

JW: Now, are you sure that this is not one of Bob Dylan’s many pseudonyms?

SW: [Laughter] Like “Roosevelt Gook”?  No, no. I have a photograph of Whoopee John Wilfahrt at the Minneapolis airport, taken at about the same time, about 1948, with his band. I happen to know a lot about Whoopee John. He was quite a character when he died. It turned out he had left money in most of the hotels of the Midwest, stashed away lots and lots of money, and basically hiding it from the feds. He lived quite a wild life, as you might imagine, for a man named Whoopee John.
That’s something I would never call you, Jon.

JW: Thank you. Thank you for that. Sean Wilentz, the official historian of the official bobdylan.com website.
From the Bob Dylan Christmas album, let’s listen to “Must Be Santa,” featuring David Hidalgo of Los Lobos.
Oh, they’re dancing in the corridors here at KPFK.  “Must Be Santa,” Bob Dylan with David Hidalgo from the Dylan Christmas album.

SW: I’m dancing here in Princeton. I’m having a great time.

JW: Let’s listen to another one. Here’s Bob Dylan’s “Winter Wonderland.”
Bob Dylan, he sounds like your grizzled old uncle who drank a little too much of the spiked eggnog at the family gathering.

SW: I think that’s the point, actually. Actually, there’s the Wonder Bread singers, the whitest white bread singers I’ve ever heard. But you also listen closely, and you hear Donny Herron on the pedal steel guitar. I think it’s the first time that “Winter Wonderland” has been done, at least in recent memory, with a pedal steel guitar. Dylan always adds a touch. There are touches of the current Bob Dylan along with what Bob Dylan was hearing when he was seven years old.

JW:   This whole project made me think of Dylan’s radio program on XM and Sirius satellite radio, “Theme Time Radio Hour,” where we see what a connoisseur and scholar Bob Dylan is of these pre-rock, earlier 20th century genres. In a way, this is part of that project.

SW: Very much so. This could be a show from that series, called “Christmas,” but the difference is that he sings all the songs. He doesn’t just introduce them. But in fact, one of the songs, “Must Be Santa,” actually did appear in the, I forget the name of the band, but anyway, on his Christmas show from SiriusXM. Yes, there is a similarity. He knows a lot about it. This is an active archivist. He’s an archivist among other things. This album is an example of that.

JW: Let’s listen to another one. Of course, he has to do the “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”
Bob Dylan’s “Little Town of Bethlehem.” I can only say “there must be some way out of here.”

SW: [Laughter] This is not one of my favorite cuts on the album. There are others that are better. “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” not his best performance.

JW: Well, you know, we–

SW: Some of the songs just don’t. Christmas produced a lot of interesting, wonderful music, which is why so many people cut Christmas albums, Everybody from Frank Sinatra to Ray Charles to Barbara Streisand. Even the Jews cut Christmas albums, right? Neil Diamond has a new one, his second one. There’s a songbook, a real songbook, but some of the songs are very difficult. This is one of them, actually. “The Christmas Song,” the famous Mel Torme song is also. You need a real range to sing those songs well, and I’m afraid that this doesn’t quite do it, at least not for me.

JW: We’re speaking with Sean Wilentz, he’s the official historian at the official Bob Dylan website, bobdylan.com. One thing that strikes me about this music is that it’s so puzzling, so confusing, so troubling to fans of Bob Dylan’s classic music. Bob has always made a practice of pulling the rug out from under fans who thought they had him pegged. He spent a lot of his career refusing to fulfill his fans’ wishes. This is certainly part of that.

SW: You could see it that way. The other thing is this is a cover album. These are all cover songs. There’s not a single Bob Dylan song on here that he wrote. Whenever Bob Dylan does a cover album, it usually means that there’s a change gonna come. He did “Self Portrait,” which got roundly panned, especially by, I don’t know if I can say this on the air, but you’ll remember Greil Marcus’s famous first line of his review in Rolling Stone of that album, which is, “What is this-blank”?

JW: “What is this crap,” but not quite “crap.”

SW: Not quite that. Yeah. Then, he went on to do “Blood on the Tracks.” Right?

JW: Yeah.

SW: Then, he did the cover albums in the early 90s, the two folk acoustic albums, “Good As I Been To You” and “World Gone Wrong.” The next thing, he comes out with his “Time Out of Mind,” which is a whole different thing. Who knows what’s going to come? Here’s another cover album. It’s Bob Dylan trying to – and I actually kind of mean this – it’s him plumbing his depths. He’s trying to find something. He’s trying to locate something in his soul, in himself, in his music, and this is the way he does it, by singing other people’s songs, singing a whole album of other people’s songs. It’s interesting for that. You have to watch out for that. The second thing is, this is the first time he’s done a Christian album since “Shot of Love.” In other words, this is a spiritual record. This is about his beliefs. He’s a Christian of a very weird kind. You have to see it in that context too, there’s a lot of different ways in which Dylan is, and that also disappointed his fans, by the way, when he went gospel, people thought–

JW: Yes. “Disappointed” is putting it mildly.

SW: Yeah, people went nuts. Although I think that in retrospect, if you go back and listen to some of those albums, not all of them, not “Saved.” But if you listen to “Shot of Love” again, you’ll be very surprised. There’s a lot of really good music on there.

JW: “Gotta Serve Somebody,” in retrospect, does have some strengths.

SW: “Slow Train Coming,” absolutely. But go back and listen to “Shot of Love” sometime, the song about Lenny Bruce. It’s him kind of being semi-secular. But anyway, my point is only that Bob Dylan is doing a lot of different things at the same time, and he is doing a lot of different things at the same time in this album. It just sounds so schmaltzy and innocuous, but nothing with Bob Dylan, even at its most schmaltzy, is to be taken completely at face value.

JW: Well, I think we’ve got time for one more. Let’s listen to, from the Bob Dylan Christmas album, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”
“Faithful friends who are dear to us” – Sean Wilentz, I don’t know, you can say this isn’t singing, it’s croaking.  But when Tom Waits croaks, a lot of people think it’s great. Or when Louis Armstrong sings this song, and he doesn’t have a beautiful voice either in the classic sense.

SW: I don’t know what the complaining is about. I really don’t. It’s the same voice that’s singing “Love and Theft.” I don’t quite get it. It’s that I think it has more to do that you’re used to hearing these songs sung by Nat King Cole or Mel Torme, someone with a very smooth voice. Bob Dylan is certainly adding a new dimension to Christmas that we didn’t hear before, but it’s a voice that is instantly recognizable, much as say Louis Armstrong’s was. When you hear those voices, it takes you two nanoseconds, you know who you’re listening to. Immediately, that conjures up a whole series of associations. Then it’s not just the voice, which at times falters, it doesn’t hit the notes, on that track in particular. But again, it’s about the phrasing. Listen to how he’s parsing out his words. Listen to how he’s doing that with the music. It’s actually a very much more complicated record than people would think about, because he’s taking all that seriously. Maybe more seriously now than anyone else because this song has been sung by a million other people. Bob Dylan, when he sings, I don’t know, “Summer Days,” or any of the songs that he’s done recently, he’s the only person who does those. Maybe Sheryl Crow will do them too, but very few anymore, right? It’s not like Peter, Paul and Mary, it’s his song. Now, he has to go up against the entire galaxy of American singers going back to Eddie Cantor and before. He has to add something new to a tradition, and that’s part of what’s going on here too.

JW: Sean Wilentz is the official historian at the official Bob Dylan website. He also teaches American History at Princeton. Sean, thank you–for helping us understand.

SW: Thank you, Jon. It’s always a pleasure.

JW: We spoke with Sean Wilentz about Bob Dylan’s Christmas album in December 2009.

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Jon Wiener

Jon Wiener is a contributing editor of The Nation and co-author (with Mike Davis) of Set the Night on Fire: L.A. in the Sixties.

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