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.

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.

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)”

Bob Dylan, “Melancholy Mood”

Bob Dylan "Melancholy Mood"

Bob Dylan "Melancholy Mood"
It is (in the sense of those things these days) Bob Dylan’s hot new single: “Melancholy Mood.” The song is best known from its recording by Harry James and his Orchestra, with brand new boy singer Frank Sinatra, in 1939. It was the B-side of “From the Bottom of My Heart.” Neither side charted, though both are masterful and lovely records and show the promise of the Sinatra to come. Bob Dylan’s version is embedded below here via YouTube, with a little more on the song and his own quite lovely take on it coming under that.

Comparing Dylan’s to the Harry James/Frank Sinatra side (also on YouTube at the moment) reveals that it is the very same arrangement, as adapted by his five piece guitar-based band. You would think that someone like Dylan would do it as a song, rather than in the style of a big band, where the singer comes in only after the band has gone through the tune already—but you would think wrong. Where Harry James played his trumpet, we have beautiful solo guitar, and on it goes to about the one minute and seven second mark (just as on the James side) and then Bob Dylan steps to the microphone—the most grizzled boy singer you’d ever want to see—and caresses the lyric the rest of the way.

That has been the modus operandi of Dylan on these “Sinatra covers;” that is, to take one of Sinatra’s original recordings (in a lot of cases there were multiple Sinatra versions to pick from) and to simply try to recreate the arrangement with the five piece combo (and occasional extra). In so doing, and in each case, they come up with something beautiful of their own. Dylan’s singing, of-course, is always his own.

And as with his previous interpretations of these old popular songs, Dylan brings resonances to “Melancholy Mood” beyond the boy/girl love theme that would have been the given way of hearing it before. This song, from a lonely soul, even has something to say along those lines, which sounds so right in Dylan’s gentle and aged voice:

But love is a whimsy
And as flimsy as lace
And my arms embrace an empty space

The singer’s soul is “stranded high and dry”—all he can see is “grief and gloom / till the crack of doom.” Still, he prays for release from his melancholy mood, and in Bob’s voice it seems to me this has less the sense of a boy praying for his girl to come back and more the sense of the creature praying to his Creator for an infinitely greater kind of release.

Dylan’s gift to these songs is to show just how deep they can go, without changing a note or a word.

“Melancholy Mood” was written by Vick Knight and Walter Schumann.



Bob Dylan’s forthcoming album, from which “Melancholy Mood” is taken, is titled Fallen Angels, and is to be released on May 20th. The full track listing is as follows:

1. Young At Heart
2. Maybe You’ll Be There
3. Polka Dots and Moonbeams
4. All The Way
5. Skylark
6. Nevertheless
7. All Or Nothing At All
8. On A Little Street In Singapore
9. It Had To Be You
10. Melancholy Mood
11. That Old Black Magic
12. Come Rain Or Come Shine

And to all that I can only say: Golly! It’s a great time to be alive.

Bob Dylan Chooses Hired Guns Over Cancellations

Dylan Guns Cancellations

Dylan Guns Cancellations
The U.S. State Department has warned Americans abroad to steer clear of numerous sites in Italy that are apparently threatened by jihadist attacks. These include in particular the Vatican in Rome, and two sites in the city of Milan: the Duomo and La Scala opera house. The warning also mentions more general targets “such as churches, synagogues, restaurants, theatres, and hotels” in both Milan and Rome. Continue reading “Bob Dylan Chooses Hired Guns Over Cancellations”

Bob Dylan: “Obsessed with Aging”?

Bob Dylan obsessed with aging

Bob Dylan obsessed with aging

Anything Bob Dylan does continues to be grist for the media machine, as if he were a slightly more hirsute Taylor Swift, and the news that he would appear on the second to last episode of the “Late Night with David Letterman” show duly got the presses rolling. I was struck by the angle taken in New York’s Daily News, where, underneath a photo of the “legendary rocker” was this bit of editorializing: “The singer has been particularly obsessed with aging as his own career winds down.” Aside from begging for the observation that we all should be glad to have as many number one albums as Dylan when our careers are winding down, it made me wonder: Is Dylan really obsessed with aging? The article also states: Continue reading “Bob Dylan: “Obsessed with Aging”?”