Seth Rogovoy, author of Bob Dylan: Prophet, Mystic, Poet, wrote about Bob Dylan’s Judaism, Jews who write Christmas music, and the album itself. He is guest-blogging all week for MyJewishLearning and the Jewish Book Council.
Bob Dylanâ€™s worst, after all, is typically a lot better than many peopleâ€™s best, and as good as even more peopleâ€™s mediocre efforts. But in its lack of inspiration and imagination, and in the poor quality of the performances, especially in Dylanâ€™s horrible vocals, this seemed nothing more than a tossed-off, misguided effort, ranking even below such Dylan misfires as Self Portrait, Knocked Out Loaded, and Down in the Groove. (Whatâ€™s that, you say? You never heard of those? Well, thereâ€™s a reason.)
Which still leaves the unanswerable question, why? Or, more precisely, what does it mean?
I think, short of getting inside of Bob Dylanâ€™s head — which, having studied him long and hard for more decades than I care to admit, is a place Iâ€™ve concluded you donâ€™t want to go — weâ€™ve established as well as we can why Dylan would want to make a Christmas album. It makes perfect sense in the greater context of Dylanâ€™s career as an American musician, and even as a Jewish-American musician (see parts 1-3 of this series).
As for what it might mean, with the implication being what it might mean regarding Dylanâ€™s self-identification as a Jew or a Christian, thatâ€™s a much more difficult question to answer. Indeed, itâ€™s impossible to say.
Itâ€™s not my place to comment on the meaning of Christmas in contemporary America, although Iâ€™ve had plenty of chances to observe it up close and personal being celebrated by a wide cross-section of people from all walks of life. And Iâ€™ve often had it explained to me by those who do honor the holiday in one way or another that it has little to no religious significance (this is often by way of their inviting me to join in the festivities).
As with all of Bob Dylanâ€™s songs, ultimately whatever â€œmeaningâ€ there is in a song is something personal that exists between the singer and the listener. Itâ€™s not for any writer or critic to decide a songâ€™s ultimate meaning (I say this as one whose book about the profound Jewish meanings of much of Bob Dylanâ€™s work is on the eve of publication). I donâ€™t even think itâ€™s up to Bob Dylan to decide his songsâ€™ ultimate meanings; if he offered up any interpretations, theyâ€™d be suspect, in any case.
As for me, Iâ€™ve warmed to Christmas in the Heart. Some of the performances are insinuating (Iâ€™m having a hard time getting his â€œDo You Hear What I Hear?â€ out of my head, for better or worse, and much to the annoyance of close friends and Twitter followers). Thereâ€™s a certain amount of kitsch value to the recordings (although not nearly as much personality and humor as was found on last springâ€™s Together Through Life). Thereâ€™s nothing really here to offend anyone of any persuasion, other than some of Dylanâ€™s less attractive barks and growls, and some of the choirâ€™s more offensive dollops of sugar.
Great Dylan itâ€™s not; a great Christmas album itâ€™s not. Another small chapter in the inscrutable career of Bob Dylan it is. And for that alone, itâ€™s worth a listen.
Almost lost in all the commotion surrounding Bob Dylanâ€™s new Christmas album, Christmas in the Heart â€” his first charity album, as the proceeds from all sales are being donated to hunger charities, according to his website â€” is a fair consideration of the music itself: where it sits in the context of Dylanâ€™s overall output, and how it relates to the decades-old genre of Christmas recordings by popular music artists.
For the last twenty years or so, and especially over the last decade, Bob Dylan has been honing a particular sound, especially in his live appearances â€” about 100 concerts per year on whatâ€™s been termed his â€œNever Ending Tour.â€ Dylanâ€™s aesthetic, which bears almost no relationship to that of any other artist in contemporary music, is a unique fusion of his own style of rock music (which in itself is a blend of many genres, including blues, folk, country, rockabilly, gospel, pop, and R&B) with pre-rock influences, such as western swing, bluegrass, jump blues, jazz, and Tin Pan Alley. More ethnic sounds have been creeping into Dylanâ€™s work as of late, too, including the polka rhythms of his northern Minnesota youth, as well as Tex-Mex and French chansons, all of which gained prominence on his entertaining album released earlier this year, Together Through Life.
Given the revival of Dylanâ€™s interest in pre-rock musical traditions, it makes sense that he would now, from a musical point of view, tackle the timeless genre of holiday music, which in and of itself spans multiple styles and sounds. (Indeed, itâ€™s not for nothing that the back cover of the CD booklet sports a photo-illustration of the 1950s pin-up queen, Betty Page, dressed in a scanty Santa Claus outfit). On Christmas In the Heart, Dylan revels in the genreâ€™s eclecticism, turning in a bluesy version of â€œThe Christmas Blues,â€ a polka-infused â€œMust Be Santa,â€ and a tropical take on â€œChristmas Islandâ€ (as my son said disbelievingly upon first hearing this, â€œThereâ€™s such a thing as Hawaiian Christmas music?â€). Dylan even has a go at the 13th-century hymn, â€œO Come All Ye Faithful (Adeste Fideles),â€ tackling the first verse in the original Latin, Bing Crosby-style.
Dylan has taken his licks for some of his less-inspired forays into the holiday-music tradition. The album employs a corps of backup singers who trade verses with Dylan on several numbers, and instead of sounding like the soulful gospel choirs on his albums of the late 1970s and 1980s, these arrangements sound more like the sugary-sweet Ray Conniff singers, making for, to say the least, an odd juxtaposition with Dylanâ€™s craggy vocals.
A word about those vocals are in order: Dylanâ€™s voice, even at its best, is a topic worthy of a blogpost series of its own, maybe even a book. Suffice it to say that even for those (like me) who sincerely believe that Dylan is a masterful singer who phrases with the best of them, Dylanâ€™s voice has never sounded worse than it does here: raspy, phlegmy, downright scary. Itâ€™s hard to imagine anyone playing this music at a real holiday party; if Christmas music is supposed to evoke warm, holiday feelings, this sounds more like the soundtrack to Christmas courtesy of Ebenezer Scrooge (even if this is a very un-Scrooge-like charity effort).
And with only a few exceptions (â€œMust Be Santa,â€ â€œHere Comes Santa Clausâ€), the instrumental arrangements are uninspired, eschewing as they do the fine tradition of rocking holiday numbers such as Tom Pettyâ€™s â€œChristmas All Over Again,â€ Bruce Springsteenâ€™s â€œSanta Claus Is Coming to Town,â€ or any one of many fun versions of â€œJingle Bell Rock,â€ any of which Dylan could have easily imprinted with his own idiosyncratic stamp.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about Bob Dylanâ€™s Christmas album is that it took nearly fifty years for him to make one. There is a long-established tradition of pop artists recording Christmas music, after all. Artists in all genres, from classic pop crooners such as Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, and Mel TormÃ© to white-bread entertainers such as Connie Francis, Dinah Shore, Bobby Darin, Dean Martin, Perry Como, and Andy Williams, to early rock nâ€™ rollers such as Elvis Presley and the Beatles, to country singers such as Gene Autry, Merle Haggard, and Eddy Arnold, to soul/R&B artists such as Charles Brown and Luther Vandross, to hard-rockers such as Foghat, Slade, and the White Stripes, to classical vocalists such as Andrea Bocelli and Luciano Pavarottti, to punk-rock artists such as the Kinks and the Ramones, to hip-hop artists Run-DMC, Raekwon, and Kurtis Blow — all have recorded Christmas songs or Christmas albums.
And not just a few of these songs happen to have been written or recorded by Jewish artists. In fact, the bestselling song of all time is a Christmas song written by a Jew. I speak, of course, of “White Christmas,” written by the son and grandson of cantors, Irving Berlin, born Israel Baline in eastern Belarus, the man also responsible for that springtime favorite, â€œEaster Parade.â€
While Irving Berlin holds the title as author of the bestselling song (and Christmas song) of all time, another Jewish musician, saxophonist Kenny G — born Kenneth Bruce Gorelick — is the all-time Christmas-album champion, with not one but two albums in the all-time Top 10, including the number-one bestselling Christmas album of all time, Miracles. (Kenny G has recorded five â€œholidayâ€ albums in sum, and to his credit, a few of these have included token Hanukkah songs.)
Other Jewish stars of the â€œholidayâ€ music genre include Barry Manilow, Herb Alpert, Barbra Streisand, Carly Simon, Neil Diamond, and Mel TormÃ©. TormÃ© is both writer and originator of one of the most popular Christmas songs of all time, titled, aptly enough, â€œThe Christmas Song,â€ but perhaps best known for its opening phrase, â€œChestnuts roasting on an open fire…â€ (Dylan includes a rendition of this song on his album.)
Other Jewish songwriters who hit paydirt catering to the seasonal music market included Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne, whose efforts include â€œLet It Snow,â€ and Johnny Marks, who made something of a specialty of writing Christmas songs, including â€œRockinâ€™ Around the Christmas Tree,â€ â€œA Holly Jolly Christmas,â€ and that novelty classic, â€œRudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer.â€
There is perhaps nothing more American, nothing more traditional, and, perhaps, nothing more traditional for a Jewish-American musician, than recording Christmas music.
My new book, Bob Dylan: Prophet, Mystic, Poet (Scribner) â€” a critical biography of the rock poet that examines his life and work through a Jewish prism â€” hasnâ€™t even been officially published yet (that happens next Tuesday, Nov. 24), but already Iâ€™m getting used to having to address the question on everyoneâ€™s minds: But what about the Christmas album?
Last month, Bob Dylan released Christmas In the Heart (Columbia), a collection of fifteen popular and obscure seasonal numbers, featuring hymns, carols, and novelties, including â€œWinter Wonderland,â€ â€œLittle Drummer Boy,â€ â€œSilver Bells,â€ â€œIâ€™ll Be Home for Christmas,â€ and â€œThe First Noel.â€ Like anything and everything Bob Dylan does, the effort has been examined under a microscopic for clues as to what it says about Dylanâ€™s state of mind and, not the least, for any indication of his ever-elusive religious beliefs.
Down that road, my friend, lies trouble.
Trying to mine any biographical truth about Bob Dylan from his songs or actions is a fruitless, hopeless task. And I say this after having written a full-length book that sort of attempts to do just this. But I make clear in my book that, in spite of all my efforts to divine some sort of truth or message from Dylanâ€™s work, ultimately the work stands on its own, and any attempt to draw conclusions about the artist himself â€” a man who in word and deed has always made it clear that nothing is clear and that obfuscation is in itself one of his greatest talents â€” is destined to fail.
This is a man, after all, whose greatest cinematic achievement is a film called Masked and Anonymous, in which he plays a fictional character named Jack Fate, an old rock star who sings songs that we know as Bob Dylan songs. And a guy whose essence was perhaps best captured in a film by Todd Haynes called Iâ€™m Not There, which took its title from a Bob Dylan song that had never been officially released (until it was included on the film soundtrack album).
Are you beginning to see the challenges one faces in trying to wrap oneâ€™s thoughts around one of the most enigmatic artists of the last half-century?