I Dreamed I Saw St. Nicholas: Why Bob Dylan's Christmas Album Isn't a Joke

I Dreamed I Saw St. Nicholas: Why Bob Dylan's Christmas Album Isn't a Joke

I Dreamed I Saw St. Nicholas: Why Bob Dylan's Christmas Album Isn't a Joke

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Slate's Culture Blog
Oct. 15 2009 11:24 AM

I Dreamed I Saw St. Nicholas: Why Bob Dylan's Christmas Album Isn't a Joke


Mommy, Santa's scaring me! Just in time for Halloween, Bob Dylan's Christmas album is here, its arrival harkened by the 68-year-old legend's

—a sound more Beelzebub than Jolly Old Elf.


is being called a

, the latest of Dylan's many efforts to

épater la bourgeoisie

, confound his worshipful fans and exegetes, and generally mess with people's heads. There's something to the theory. The trickster behind "

" surely relishes taking his place in a lineage of Jewish yuletide music that stretches from





But to dismiss

Christmas in the Heart

as mere mischief is to misunderstand Dylan—and Christmas songs. In recent years, Dylan has been less folk singer than folklorist. On albums like


(2006), and

(2009)—and on his fabulous

—Dylan has been dipping further into America's musical back pages with an expansive vision of roots music that takes in not just blues and gospel and country but 19th-century parlor songs, vaudeville ragtime tunes, Tin Pan Alley's Hawaiian ballads, and other products of the ye olde pop industrial complex. Dylan's love for crooners like Bing Crosby is evident in

Modern Times

' "

," a note-for-note homage to the 1930s hit "


For decades, of course, Bing was "Santa Cros," Hollywood's

, and his blithe spirit hangs over the new record. Dylan's croak is miles from Crosby's honeyed drawl, but he has a Bingian gift for sly phrasing and subtle swing. The arrangements, meanwhile, pay tribute to mid-century Christmas pop, right down to the backup vocalists who chirp in close harmony through numbers like "Winter Wonderland." Those flourishes, like the

, have struck many as another high-concept Dylan jape. "Dylan plays things beyond straight, adhering to the syrupy, schlocky pop sounds of the pre-rock era,"

, who awards the album zero stars out of a possible five.

Dylan, though, knows that holiday schlock is a profound tradition in its own right. Most yuletide standards are of relatively recent provenance, cooked up by pop tune-smiths during and just after World War II. But it was the special genius of those (mostly Jewish) composers to create songs that feel as if they have always existed, that can sit comfortably beside the ancient "O Come All Ye Faithful (Adeste Fideles)" and "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" as icons of that bizarre civic-religious rite, the American Christmas—the one time each year when the country's consumerist and spiritual excesses merge in a mass celebration of the enchanted and uncanny. Even the silliest Christmas tunes are surreal—cheerily, unblinkingly narrating tales of flying reindeer and talking snowmen. Then there are songs like Berlin's titanic "

," which fuses Stephen Foster's antebellum nostalgia, Jewish schmaltz, and Broadway melodicism into a secular hymn that is as dark and blue as it is "merry and bright."

Dylan gets this, and that's why

Christmas in the Heart

is less a joke or a provocation than a polemic. He's harnessing his unrivaled cred to remind us that Christmas ditties are as deeply American—and often, as just plain deep—as anything Alan Lomax ever recorded in an Appalachian holler. Singing (or rasping) "Silver Bells" and "Do You Hear What I Hear?" and "Here Comes Santa Claus," Dylan is the haggard, haunting voice of the musical collective unconscious—our Ghost of Christmas Past.

Jody Rosen is critic at large for T: The New York Times Style Magazine.