Bob Dylan’s Christmas Revisited

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One of the special treats for dedicated Bob Dylan fans this year was the publication of Ray Padgett’s book Pledging My Time: Conversations with Bob Dylan Band Members. It contains 40 interviews with musicians who have played live with Dylan from his earliest days right up to (nearly) the present day.

And just a few days ago, Ray delivered another treat, that being an interview with Randy Crenshaw, one of the backing singers who sang on Bob Dylan’s Christmas in the Heart album in 2009. Read it all at Ray Padgett’s substack page.

As detailed there, Randy and the rest of his male quartet for the occasion arrived and participated in a single day of recording, during which they completed “I’ll Be Home For Christmas,” “Here Comes Santa Claus,” “Must Be Santa,” “The First Noel,” and “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” These songs were all recorded live in the studio: everyone all together playing and singing at once. This was enough to blow the singers’ minds, as it is naturally almost never done that way in the modern era, and let alone with such an ensemble. There was Dylan’s regular touring band, a gaggle of special musicians, the four male singers and three unrelated female singers. And in the middle of the room there was Bob Dylan himself, commanding a boombox with various versions of his Christmas favorites for everyone to listen to. Then he’d invite everyone to join in as he launched into one. The singers, accustomed to having arrangements to follow, were flummoxed, but somehow between themselves they worked things out on the fly and came up with parts to sing in appropriate places. (It was something of a Christmas miracle, albeit in Los Angeles in the month of May.)

Hearing that things were this spontaneous surprised me personally, to be honest, because—other than Bob’s own vocals—Christmas in the Heart always sounded pretty slick to me. It certainly succeeds in evoking the classic stylings of many popular old Christmas records. I imagined that more thought and preparation had gone into achieving that. Randy Crenshaw does note that Dylan’s own band was very on the ball and knew what he wanted, so we might presume they had run through some of the material with Bob on previous occasions. But hats off to the backing singers, because they truly delivered performances that sound just right, under quite extraordinary circumstances. (And, true to form, Bob Dylan was disinclined to even listen to the takes; unless there’d been an explosion during the taping, he was happy to move right on to the next tune.)

Back when this album was originally released, I wrote a novella-length review: “Follow the Light: The Heart in Bob Dylan’s Christmas.” The gist of it was my exploration of why this album was the best blending of the secular with the religious songs of Christmas that I’d ever heard. (And I stand by that.) My conclusion as to why that was came down largely to the opening track, Gene Autry’s “Here Comes Santa Claus.” I had never even noticed the religious content in this Santa song before (and indeed, some versions leave it out). Dylan’s version, however, emphasizes it in a way that makes it impossible to miss. His performance ends this way:

Peace on Earth will come to all
If we just follow the light
So fill your hearts with Christmas cheer
’Cos Santa Claus comes tonight

[slower and with emphasis] Peace on Earth will come to all
If we just follow the light
Let’s give thanks to the Lord above
’Cos Santa Claus comes tonight

Let’s give thanks to the Lord above
’Cos Santa Claus comes tonight

So, on the opening song of the album, this has the effect of putting Santa in his place. It effectively reorders Christmas, announcing that Santa Claus, the tinsel, the lights, the presents, the reindeer and the rest of that silly, fun stuff are all things that we can and should thank God for. So now, the secular songs of Christmas that follow don’t seem so much to be shoving Jesus out of the way. They are just part of the joy that God gives us, and it’s OK to enjoy them, right alongside hymns like “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” and “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” Usually, singers will record either secular or religious Christmas albums, or separate the two in the sequencing of the songs. Bob Dylan, I do believe, blends both in a way that makes them complementary and seemingly of one spirit.

And thanks to Randy Crenshaw’s testimony we now know he did it all live in the studio, by the seat of his pants, with just a break for Subway sandwiches in between.

It truly is a wonderful world. God bless us, every one.