The following are the irrefutable rules of the Christmas Album: Every Christmas album should begin with Sleigh bells. Every Christmas album should be lush with back-up singers. Christmas albums shouldn’t get too interesting or complicated. They should stick to the standards, have an air of whimsy and lots of good cheer. They should make you want to drink eggnog and wassail and visit relatives. Christmas albums should be able to fade into the background so as not to intrude terribly into mingling. They should sound warm on chilly nights. Finally, they should make you yearn for simpler times and I’m reminded of my favorite scene in Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol where Ebenezer Scrooge says of his former employer Mr. Fezziwig
“He has the power to render us happy or unhappy; to make our service light or burdensome; a pleasure or a toil. The happiness he gives, is quite as great as if it cost a fortune.”
Bob Dylan is the musical equilvilent of Mr. Fezziwig. After a lifetime of rendering us happy or unhappy on his musical whims he finally turns to the most American of recordings; The Christmas Album. First, let me say that I believe Dylan to be a pop star more than anything else. I’ll go further and say it’s as he wishes it to be. Since the advent of music as serious art we at times forget that it is at base, wonderful, and that many of the greats loved the popular stuff of the day. Elvis Presley, greased up rockabilly god that he was and is, really liked Perry Como and Dean Martin. Hank Williams loved Tony Bennett. If Hank had lived longer than 29 years of age, I believe completely and without doubt he would have softened his sound over the years and pushed his nasal twang into a evening croon. He had the voice to do it. So did Elvis and he did do it.
When reading about early influences on Bob Dylan singers like Woody Guthrie and Ramblin’ Jack can’t be avoided, but look closely and see names like Elvis and Little Richard are in there too. How could they not be. Dylan carries the burdeon of being literate around with him. Yea, though it must be heavy. An Albatross of responsibility because he turned a few political phrases many years ago. Thank God Cole Porter once famously said “Fuck all that, I don’t vote.” Then he poured himself another drink and wrote Anything Goes.
Dylan of the 21st Century is a highway bluesman. He blows mouth harp and thumps on the keys and occasionally still scratches out a few electrified riffs on his guitar all while being backed up by a roadhouse band that shakes and rattles in thunder clap bursts. He’s also had his own radio show spot lighting country and blues and r&b artists, mostly dead and gone and largely forgotten. Musicians he loves and who speak to him from vinyl tongues about all the important things of life, sex, love, drinking, killing, weather, mothers, babies, and suped up cars.
Now, almost every great American singer worth their mustard has given us a holiday album. I would go as far to say, perhaps someone can’t completely be considered a great until he or she does. Possible exclusions to the good who died young like Hank or Buddy Holly. Ritchie Valens would have made a great Christmas album. All Mexican soul. But, the exceptions are few.
There’s a knock at the door. It’s awfully cold outside, who could that be on such a winter’s night. No matter, the fire is crackling and pine fills the air and hearts are merry. Perhaps it’s a old friend stopping by to warm his hands. Why, it’s Bob Dylan dear, and look he’s brought his band. Quick fetch the wassail they’re beginning to sing.
Christmas in the Heart begins with the soft shuffle of sleigh bells and the swelling ohh-ahhs of a sweet back-up group. A moment later the brisk chop of the band kicks in and then there’s Dylan singing Here Comes Santa Claus straight, up-tempo and full of…well, good cheer. If you aren’t smiling by this point please stop reading my blog. This is quite possibly the most joyous recording of his career and makes me grin like a dummy. The whole thing even has a big ending of sorts. Sweet.
Next up is the Christmas march I used to love singing as a kid, Do You See What I See. Dylan and the rat-a-tat-tat are way out in front on this one. There’s a Johnny Cash feel here with the lumpy rhythm and slow building production. Horns and bells build throughout until it has Dylan singing at the peak of his range, which may not actually work, but somehow, works.
The album continues on with straightforward renderings of the classics, highlights being the chorus singers who are wonderful like steaming hot cider with Dylan playing the Apple Jack Brandy. The band shimmers behind them with bells and horns and shining guitars and rattling drums.
David Hidalgo is all over this album too and shines on accordion on the William Hicks and Hal Moore song Must Be Santa, probably best known by Raffi. Though this is the one song that leaves other covers in the snow. Dylan, well, kind of gives Raffi a bit of a Yule-time spanking.
Dylan is a trickster, an old black crow. Here though,on Christmas in the Heart, he gives us something rare. He plays the straight man. He plays the classics and pops the corn. Not everyone will love this, but they’re assholes who hate Christmas. Think about that.
P.S. Apologies to my Mother for using the F word in a blog about Christmas. Asking for forgiveness works better than asking for permission. God bless us, everyone!