Christmas in the Heart Bob Dylan

Follow the Light: The Heart in Bob Dylan’s Christmas

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(Cont’d from page one.)
Christmas In The Heart by Bob Dylan - back coverThe concluding emphasis of the song (on thanking God) also reflects back, by the way, upon lines which we had already heard and will hear again when we replay the track. Earlier in the song, there is the line, Santa knows we’re all God’s children / And that makes everything right. There’s also, Hang your stockings and say your prayers / ’Cos Santa Claus comes tonight. Before, these lines went by fast and might not have seemed to signify much, but thanks to the emphasis on thanking God in Bob’s conclusion, their import is amplified. Suddenly it seems as if Here Comes Santa Claus is really a religious song masquerading as a song about the obese red-suited elf. Dylan’s arrangement and performance of the song has done nothing if not gently lift the mask.

Another line that may have seemed less significant before is that “follow the light,” as in Peace on Earth will come to all / If we just follow the light, which Dylan’s arrangement also repeats and emphasizes. A meaningless platitude? Well, light has a great deal of significance, and perhaps this song, and in particular Dylan’s version of it, is comprehending that.

If the light passed us by that time, however, the very next track makes sure we don’t miss it. On the almost-too-sweet evocation of the birth of Christ that is the song Do You Hear What I Hear, Dylan sings all of the lyrics as laid out in the song but manages to get across his emphasis in his performance. It is in the startling and dramatic way in which he sings the final word of the song, that word being light. The last verse of the song as written expresses the words of an earthly king (perhaps one of the Three Kings?) who announces “to the people everywhere”:

The child, the child
Sleeping in the night
He will bring us goodness and light
He will bring us goodness and light

On Bob’s final repetition of that line, and specifically on the word light, he raises his voice and his pitch in a way that is altogether impossible to miss. (It is, in fact, a point at which many people — philistines, of-course! — would simply run from the room or take an ax to the speaker cables.) He is reaching for something he simply can’t achieve, judged by any normal standard; his voice breaks — it is either unseemly or very nearly so. The listener wonders: Doesn’t he know he didn’t make that? Doesn’t he know that he couldn’t make it? Why did he even attempt it?

But the word echoes in the listener’s head. It cannot but, after that vocal effort. The word is light.

Follow the light

He will bring us goodness and light

In an interview quite a few years ago, Bill Flanagan observed to Bob Dylan that someone who knows the Bible will hear Bob’s songs one way, and someone who doesn’t will hear them in a different way. These aren’t Dylan’s songs, but he’s the same Bob, and certainly he knows his Bible, and I do think that he knows what he’s doing with these words.

Light shows up in the very first words of God as given in the Bible. That’s in chapter one, verse three of the Book of Genesis. In context, the first four verses go like this (RSV):

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters.

And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness.

The first reported words of God are something of special importance, one would think. And light, as any physicist will tell you, is a big deal.

And for Christians, there are no more fundamental words in the New Testament to tell who Jesus Christ is than the opening verses of the Gospel of John, starting with “In the beginning was the Word.” From verse two:

He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

Repeatedly throughout the Bible, light is associated with God and with all that is good that comes from God. It would be beyond me to even begin a litany of such references, but here’s just one more from the Book of Daniel, chapter two, using the KJV here:

Daniel answered and said, Blessed be the name of God for ever and ever: for wisdom and might are his:

And he changeth the times and the seasons: he removeth kings, and setteth up kings: he giveth wisdom unto the wise, and knowledge to them that know understanding:

He revealeth the deep and secret things: he knoweth what is in the darkness, and the light dwelleth with him.

(Dylan fans might also recognize some of the words above from a song Bob sang on stage during those gospel years.)

With the references to light and its association with God which Bob Dylan emphasizes in his rendition of the first two songs, again the listener is receiving a suggestion, similar to the one given by the lines Let’s give thanks to the Lord above / ’Cos Santa Claus comes tonight. In this case we’re being reminded — at a minimum — that all light comes from God, and indeed all that is bright and cheerful and warm. And we do well to thank God for that light, and to follow that light.

And indeed, Christmas is full of light, as are the songs of Christmas.

Christmas eve will find me / Where the love light gleams

Hang a shining star / Upon the highest bough

Strings of streetlights / Even stoplights / Blink a bright red and green

And to the earth it gave great light / And so it continued both day and night

Tiny little tots with their eyes all aglow …

I do believe that thanks to Dylan’s emphasis in the first two tracks of this album, the listener is invited to be conscious of the fact that all of these lights, both the grand and the subtle, reflect back upon and truly emanate from that first word of God.

In the final song of the album the light comes full circle, so to speak. That’s the song O Little Town of Bethlehem, and these lines:

Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting light
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight

In Dylan’s recent interview about this album, again it’s Bill Flanagan asking the questions, and he puts it to Bob that he sounds like “a true believer” when he sings those lines, The hopes and fears of all the years / Are met in thee tonight. Dylan responds simply, “Well, I am a true believer.” The simplicity of that statement hasn’t prevented elaborate parsing by some. Even simpler is the great and lovely “amen” with which Bob closes this song and the album. Hearing it, this listener receives a suggestion that the entire album might have been a prayer or a hymn of sorts. Certainly I’ve never heard a Christmas album on which all of these quite different kinds of Christmas songs live together so well, and seem to make so much sense in sequence. I do think it is the special achievement of Bob Dylan’s Christmas In the Heart, and it is quite an achievement at that.

All of this is not to ignore other musical elements of the album, which I think some critics have underrated or dismissed too quickly. Aside from the freshness which Dylan’s very particular vocals bring to these old songs, the musicians are very far from sleep-walking through the process, bringing out the real strengths and dignities of even some of these old Tin Pan Alley type Christmas tunes, which sadly get performed so often with so little feeling. The production is both immaculate and witty.

And with all of that said, I’d have to be a Grinch or a Scrooge to give the album any other rating than the one below.

Rating: Ten out of ten lead pipes.
10 Out Of 10 Lead Pipes
It’s a lead-pipe cinch!

Available from Christmas In the Heart

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9 thoughts on “Follow the Light: The Heart in Bob Dylan’s Christmas

  1. Fine review Sean! I couldn't help but keep going back to James 1:17 in the Bible. "Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow of turning." What also came to mind while reading is the work of the painter Thomas Kinkade and how the emphasis of light in his artistry has truly made his work stand out, as well.

  2. I also felt a continuity in the album. Secular songs and spiritual/Christian just melded in the message which came through joyfully and triumphantly!

  3. Wonderful review, Sean. Well written and very insightful. Although Bob has sung, "I've already confessed, don't need to confess again…" maybe he did, anyway.

  4. Sean, wonderfully put. I was struck in precisely the same way to the point that with every Christmas card (Wisemen following the Star) I wrote I inserted a copy of CITH along with a donation form for Feeding America. The salutation on each read, “Peace on Earth will come to all…” and the closing, “Who laughs this way? Enjoy.” Both, of course, were intended to compel the recipient to listen to find the meaning. A Blessed Christmas to you and yours. Amen.

  5. Thanks, Sean, for a thoughtful commentary. I attended the discussion between Christopher Ricks and Sean Wilentz at the Philoctetes Center here in Manhattan recently. Both men respectfully acknowledged Bob's belief in God while disclaiming such belief for themselves. Faith is an invitation and many of the songs speak to that as well. "Do you hear what I hear?" is one faith-fiilled person beckoning another to listen. The drummer boy is asked to come to the manger; the wise men travel from afar having responded in faith to a cosmic sign; silver bells announce the news and direct our attention, albeit obliquely, to this holy day. The angels say 'Hark!' and so does Bob. Pay attention to this feast and feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, visit the sick, bury the dead… It's all or nothing. Christmas, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday, the great trifecta. Merry Christmas to one and all.

  6. After reading a few dozen reviews by critics who seemed bent on trying to make us believe that Dylan only recorded "two or three Christian records" and he has long since abandoned such foolish thoughts, It is nice to finally read a review by a person who can actually listen to lyrics.

  7. Wow, what an amazing review! I really enjoyed it. I have loved Bob since I first discovered his music around ’72 or so. I became a Christian in ’75 and always prayed for him to be saved. I gave up t.v. and Rock music at that time and so didn’t hear about his conversion right away. When I did, it was a sister who posted it in the hallway of our building. I went out and bought the album, “Saved.” I cried with joy! I was so happy that Jesus found him and he finally got to know the same peace in his heart that I did.

    One day, while living with other Christians in NYC, a sister who I was especially close to came home from work to tell me that she ran into Bob in Central Park. She said he was rather incognito and sort of appeared to look like a homeless man, or something like that she said.. perhaps she said he was wearing a hat, it’s hard to remember exactly, now but it was a Summer evening. She said she just caught his profile, and recognized him. She said “Bob, is that you?” He stopped and they chatted for a few minutes. She asked him how he was doing in his walk with Jesus, if he was hanging in there or having a trying time.. something like that. He asked her what she was listening to on her walkman. I think she said it was the Pretenders. Anyway, his answer was that if she wanted to know how he was doing, to listen to his music. That you could always tell that by listening to his music. She told him that her room mate (that’s me) was praying for him, and has been for years.

    That’s all I remember now. Your review reminded me of that. So I think you are right.. his music is once again revealing how he’s doing.. or believing.

    Love you still, Mr. Dylan.. after all these years. I wonder how many other soul mates you have out there besides me, Bob. I hope we finally meet in Heaven, by the Grace of God.


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