Bob Dylan’s Christmas Revisited

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.

On Bob Dylan’s Q & A in the Wall Street Journal

I guess this must be Bob Dylan’s version of a book tour: He answers a list of questions supplied by Jeff Slate for the Wall Street Journal. The substance of it is also posted on the official Bob Dylan website.

It’s pretty clear that Dylan’s answers are written ones. In fact, a lot of the answers sound very much like his own writing in the book that prompted the interview, namely The Philosophy of Modern Song. He’s alternately serious, playful and provocative, and it’s a fun read.

Since a lot of what I’ve written in the past about Dylan has involved the religiosity of his music (and his self), I feel like it would be remiss not to note a couple of things that turn up here.

In response to a question about whether he binge-watches things on Netflix, he amusingly declares that he’s a fan of the ancient British soap opera “Coronation Street,” in addition to the “Father Brown” mysteries and (least surprisingly, perhaps) “The Twilight Zone.” But then he asserts that he never watches anything “foul smelling or evil,” and volunteers the following:

I’m a religious person. I read the scriptures a lot, meditate and pray, light candles in church. I believe in damnation and salvation, as well as predestination. The Five Books of Moses, Pauline Epistles, Invocation of the Saints, all of it.

In a way it’s a neat and funny form of evasion, which Bob has practiced before: that is, to make a grand overstatement. “What do I believe? I believe ALL OF IT! So don’t you bother trying to pick it apart.” Of-course there’s no need to evade, as this is a written response, and he’s volunteering the information, but he still likes to deliver it with a punch. And good for him. As to the breadth of his faith, I think if you spend long enough listening to his songs you come to know that he can see the hand of God everywhere and in everything.

More particularly, it’s true that he is again asserting his faith in the God of the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, as he’s done on many past occasions, although some still like to wonder about it. He’s been doing this publicly in one way or another since the Slow Train Coming album in 1979, and I strongly suspect his sense of private belief goes back much longer than that. You can find an awareness of God and a very biblical view of human nature embedded in even his earliest songs.

Later, asked what kind of music was his “first love,” he answers, “Sacred music, church music, ensemble singing.”

Putting these statments together, I’m reminded of an oft-cited quote of his from an interview with David Gates in 1997:

Here’s the thing with me and the religious thing. This is the flat-out truth: I find the religiosity and philosophy in the music. I don’t find it anywhere else. Songs like “Let Me Rest on a Peaceful Mountain” or “I Saw the Light”—that’s my religion. I don’t adhere to rabbis, preachers, evangelists, all of that. I’ve learned more from the songs than I’ve learned from any of this kind of entity. The songs are my lexicon. I believe the songs.

People are always saying that Dylan contradicts himself and is an incorrigible shape-shifter, but I believe he’s actually incredibly consistent on the big things if one takes the time to understand where he’s coming from. Sacred music is prayer, and there’s no truer path to God than prayer.

Dylan also gives an interesting answer to a question about whether technology “aids or hinders” daily life and creativity, saying among other things:

Technology is like sorcery, it’s a magic show, conjures up spirits, it’s an extension of our body, like the wheel is an extension of our foot. But it might be the final nail driven into the coffin of civilization; we just don’t know.

But after going around for a while on the ways in which technology might help or hinder, he sums up this way:

Creativity is a mysterious thing. It visits who it wants to visit, when it wants to, and I think that that, and that alone, gets to the heart of the matter.

That’s an acknowledgement—again, a consistent one of Bob’s—that it all comes from somewhere else: from the mother of muses, from the girl from the Red River shore, from the “Spirit on the Water.”

What a great thing that we still have Dylan around.

The Philosophy of Modern Song – Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan’s new book, The Philosophy of Modern Song, gives us his take on 66 different songs, delivered by means of a variety of quasi-poetic riffs and short essays. And that’s certainly what it is: his take. This is an intensely personal collection of writings. Dylan’s always been known for being guarded (although I think that theme’s been overdone at times). It is striking, however, that he seems here at his most relaxed and open, just writing about songs and what they mean to him, in addition to following some of the tangents they proffer.

The stream-of-consciousness pieces toss out images, characters and scenarios that the songs evoke for Bob, and these are quite rich and far reaching (as great songs can be when they work in our soul). The prose essays generally make for spirited good reading, with amusing and sometimes ornery digressions from the topic of the song in question. On occasion, however, there are lines that are jarringly boilerplate in nature.

Bob Dylan is clearly a consummate fan of popular music, and other brands as well. That was revealed for anyone who needed to know it years back when he hosted the delightfully contrived radio show, “Theme Time Radio Hour,” putting a hundred odd episodes in posterity’s can. Doubtless the commentary he came up with for the records he played then led to the idea for this book (and indeed a number of the people involved with the production and packaging of the book are former collaborators on “Theme Time Radio”).

Later, he recorded those Sinatra songbook albums: five LPs worth of popular songs from the pre-rock’n’roll era, put down with breathtaking passion and a stunning level of artistry.

Dylan can in fact be presumed to have the kind of gargantuan music collection—accompanied by books about his favorite performers—that, after he kicks the bucket, will cause his next-of-kin to curse him as they have to haul it out to the sidewalk for the Sanitation Department to pick up. He’s obviously one of those people who can listen to music in the morning, the afternoon, the evening and the deep dark night. As music fans ourselves, we can relate to that. Songs, records, favorite performers: they’re with us through bad times and good, through our childhood, stormy adolescence, love affairs and heartbreaks, successes and setbacks, the dreams realized, and the ones hopelessly lost. Many of the same recordings sound subtly different to us as the years and decades pass; this is due, perhaps, not only to the loss of frequencies in our hearing, but also our ever-deepening appreciation, through life experience, of what those songs were and are about.

Dylan, naturally, is the same. “The Philosophy of Modern Song”? (Not even “a” philosophy, mind you, but the philosophy.) The portentous title is a diversion and a gag, very typical of Bob. I would suggest that a more accurate (but somewhat less amusing) title would be, “The Joy I Have Found in Music”—by Bobby Zimmerman. He could have written this book if he’d never become Bob Dylan (although he is very unlikely to have found a publisher). It is not an attempt to offer a definitive or objective take on anything. It is not some deeply researched and scrupulously footnoted tome that would be part of a college curriculum on popular music (not that those can particularly be trusted either). It certainly is a love letter to the music that has meant so much to him.

Most of us will never get to sit down and have a conversation with Bob Dylan about music, or anything else, but much of what is in this book evokes those conversations we may have with longtime friends and fellow musical aficionados, oddball or otherwise. We share favorites, we trade takes, we make some statements that are serious, and others that are for laughs. We recall details and trivia that we read somewhere in a book that’s no longer in print, or that we heard someone say on the radio who-knows-how-many years ago. We share some of how a record affects us, where we were when we first heard it, why this version of the song is so much better than someone else’s version—what it all may mean. We argue and BS and laugh and come out of it all a little bit expanded, somehow.

Along the way, we might feel moved to jump on top of the couch and forcefully advocate for something we know no one else will agree with, just because we feel called in the moment to do so.

“Perry Como lived in every moment of every song he sang […] When he stood and sang, he owned the song and he shared it and we believed every word.” (page 13)

Other times we’ll slip in something deep and meaningful to ourselves—then quickly move on lest we choke up.

“The greatest of the prayer songs is ‘The Lord’s Prayer.’ None of these songs come even close.” (page 184)

And other subjects will come and go and we’ll take them on with our pearls of wisdom and one-liners.

“People keep talking about making America great again. Maybe they should start with the movies.” (page 317)

We might get passionate and genuinely angry.

“But divorce lawyers don’t care about familial bonds […] They destroy families. How many of them are at least tangentially responsible for teen suicides and serial killers?” (page 118) Then we sip our drink, light a cigarette, and propose our ingenious solution to the entire problem of divorces and broken families: polygamy! For both sexes.

Then a record comes on—“Your Cheatin’ Heart”—and we go back to the music, and to contemplating just why this particular record is so damn good.

“The song seems slower than it is because Hank doesn’t let the band lead him. The tension between the chug of the near-polka rhythm and the sadness in Hank’s voice drives it home.” (page 166)

I think that you could approach this book just as that kind of conversation with Bob, where he is speaking to you as his intimate friend. Sometimes he’s being serious, and sometimes he’s winding you up. Except here you’re only getting his side of the conversation. You can feel free to interject your responses and/or objections. Bob won’t hear you, but he’ll be glad you bought the book.



Absent the photos and other paraphernalia, this would be a lightweight tome, and I imagine some critics will dismiss the content as lightweight too. Still, some very lovely things can weigh very little: a butterfly, a snowflake, a fine cigar. For those who appreciate it, there’s plenty to enjoy in this very personal little book by Bob, and all the more if one doesn’t squint painfully at it and take it all too seriously. The breathless declarations by the publisher along the lines that it is “a momentous artistic achievement” may be doing it a disservice in that respect, but so goes the never-ending hype machine.

Dylan does know a lot of stuff about music, of-course, and so there are some genuinely revelatory moments. And, unlike most of us, he actually has met and been friendly with quite a few of the artists he writes about here. It’s notable, however, that he never leans on that personal experience in the text. There’s no: “as Frank Sinatra confided to me when he had me over for dinner,” or: “I have it on good authority from Johnny Cash himself …”. He limits himself to the evidence of the songs and recordings themselves, and what is, generally speaking, the public record.

Will anyone learn “the philosophy of modern song” by reading this book? Well, taken as a whole, you probably would soak up some of whatever that is, because it’s surely in between the lines here somewhere. But I also think it’s the same thing you’d soak up by just listening to the truly great popular music of the past one hundred years: living with it, learning of it, crying with it, moving to it, and treasuring it as the dear and faithful friend it can surely be through time.

That’s what Bob Dylan did.

Bob Dylan’s Shadow Kingdom

For about a month now fans have been awaiting this somewhat mysterious “exclusive broadcast event,” a pay-per-view-type online streaming performance by Bob Dylan, and now it has aired, and will continue to be available to watch for 48 hours. Access in the United States costs $25.

It features Dylan performing in a stylized small club setting, alternating between at least three different stagings. The arrangements and performances are sharp and quite beautiful. The instrumentation includes accordion, mandolin, Spanish guitar, and acoustic bass, and sometimes electric guitar and bass. No drums at all. Dylan’s singing is superb (assuming you’re someone who can take his singing at all).

He has an audience of heavily smoking actors and actresses. (It appears that they inhale very little smoke, the better to blow it out for effect. Still, this viewer appreciates Bob’s support for the struggling tobacco farmers.) The band wear black masks while everyone else breathes and smokes freely.

The whole thing is directed by one Alma Har’el, an Israeli-American who has a prize-winning feature film and documentary in her belt, as well as various music videos.

While initially the show was billed as featuring songs from throughout Dylan’s body of work, this broadcast is actually subtitled “The Early Songs of Bob Dylan.” And indeed it does focus on the 1960s, although there are a couple of exceptions in “What Was It You Wanted?” from 1989 and “Forever Young” from 1974. The show is about 50 minutes in duration. That surprised me: I thought it would probably be around 90 minutes.

Taken together, the subtitle “Early Songs” and the relatively short duration leads this viewer to conclude that this is going to be a series, and that there are likely at least two more “episodes” in the can.

It’s a brilliant business idea, to be sure: I bet Dylan could easily fetch a million views, globally, for something like this, and at $25 a pop, well … I’m not great at math, but it’s a fair bit of revenue for all concerned. And after the last year and a half of worldwide Wuhan weirdness, people are certainly well accustomed to substituting online experiences for the real thing.

In the end, for a fan, it’s one of life’s miracles, and something for which to be grateful. Bob Dylan is 80 years old, and here we get to see and hear him — in exceptional form — reworking his songs yet again in a scintillating and eye-opening manner. The version of “Forever Young” he performs is jaw-dropping: I’ve never heard him sing it so movingly (and I’ve heard him sing it quite a few times). “To Be Alone with You” is an almost entirely rewritten lyric, incorporating something of a religious passion. “Queen Jane,” “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight,” “Tombstone Blues” — all standouts. Every song reveals something new of itself. It seems to this listener that the enormous work that Dylan did in recording five LPs worth of songs from the Great American/Sinatra songbook has enhanced his ability to reinterpret his own songs in especially gorgeous and sensitive ways.

The songs often sound like a commentary on our strange times, but that’s how Dylan’s songs always sound, grounded as they are in an awareness of death, eternity, human nature, and the things that remain.

And it’s all going to stand up to quite a bit of re-watching.

Murder Most Foul

It seems apt that amidst the ruination, Bob Dylan drops a new song. And also apt in that it strikes a lot of us initially as a non-sequitur in today’s context — this worldwide COVID-19 pandemic. What’s Dylan on about? But in the end we get that it’s no more a non-sequitur than anything he’s ever done. The curious thing about Dylan is that all of his songs are relevant to the occasion, because he’s always retained that crucial perspective of death and eternity. It suits every moment. Whether we like it or not.

… good day to be living and a good day to die …

You can drill down to all of the references in the lyrics, if that’s what seems right, but to me it’s so much more enjoyable just to let it all wash over you, igniting so many lovely light bulbs along the way. Deep riches here. And such a beautiful, delicate vocal.

Dylan accompanied this release with the message: “Stay safe, stay observant and may God be with you.”

Here we thank Bob for keeping the faith, so many long years now — as short as they seem — and may God be with him, and with all of us.

Age of Light Update

Back in the year of our Lord two thousand and eight, on November the fourth, Barack Obama was elected to the presidency of the United States. Bob Dylan happened to be playing a show in Minnesota that night, and came back for his final encore obviously having heard the news backstage on how the electoral contest was going. He introduced his band as he normally did and then made some off-the-cuff comments, which were covered back then in this space in excruciating (although highly accurate) detail.

So, in total, he said:

I wanna introduce my band right now. On the guitar, there’s Denny Freeman. Stu Kimball is on the guitar too. Donnie Herron as well, on the violin right now, playin’ on the steel guitar earlier. George Recile’s playin’ on the drums.

Tony Garnier, wearin’ the Obama button — [applause] alright! — Tony likes to think it’s a brand new time right now. An age of light. Me, I was born in 1941 — that’s the year they bombed Pearl Harbor. Well, I been livin’ in a world of darkness ever since.

But it looks like things are gonna change now …

Change was the thing: it was “hope and change,” the theme of Barack Obama’s campaign, as older readers might remember.

Dylan’s remarks caused quite a hoopla, hailed ’round the world as an optimistic endorsement of the new president, who would clear away all of that post-Pearl-Harbor darkness for Bob and for everyone.

We took a different view here, as expounded upon in that post way back then. In short, we thought Dylan was being ironic and philosophical rather than triumphalist.

Things always change, of-course. And things have changed. An age of light? With all respect to Tony Garnier’s touching optimism, I think there is now probably exactly no one who would say the past eight years have been an age of light (albeit that we may have wildly varying reasons for saying so).

I was greatly struck, and still am, by Bob Dylan’s performance at President Obama’s White House in February of 2010 (just one year into that presidency), billed as a “Celebration of Music from the Civil Rights Era.” He showed up and played only one song, “The Times They Are a-Changin’”; not as a celebratory duet with Joan Baez (who was also there that night) but in a new, spare, and quite melancholy arrangement.

There’s a lot more that could be said, on January 19th, 2017, but it would be way too much. Those times, they sure just do keep on a-changin’. (And that I can tell you.)

Bob Dylan – Fallen Angels (and Rising Prayers)

FALLEN ANGELS by Bob Dylan Review

Review of FALLEN ANGELS by Bob Dylan

Darling, down and down I go, round and round I go
In a spin, loving the spin that I’m in
Under that old black magic called love

A few months from this time of writing, Bob Dylan will be performing at a big music event in California, sharing the bill with his contemporaries–and fellow septuagenarians–the Rolling Stones and Paul McCartney. No doubt the Stones will be singing “Satisfaction” and “Paint it Black,” and no doubt McCartney will be singing “Yesterday” and “Band on the Run.” And no doubt Bob Dylan will be singing … well, “Autumn Leaves,” “All or Nothing at All,” and “That Old Black Magic.” You have to pause a moment to contemplate how wonderfully absurd and amazing that actually is. In his most recent shows, more than a third of the titles in his set list have been what we might call these “Sinatra” songs, and of the “Bob Dylan” songs in the show most have been from the past decade and a half or so, with only 3 dating back to the 1960s or 70s. And although some concert attendees have been heard griping (and when has that not been true at a Dylan show?), the most notable fact is that he’s actually been getting away with it in quite fine style. Dylan is conspicuously deriving great joy from singing the standards and puts his whole body and spirit into the effort. Singing these gorgeous old tunes (from songwriters he had some significant role in putting out of business) seems undeniably to be making his own heart feel young. Continue reading “Bob Dylan – Fallen Angels (and Rising Prayers)”