So Bob Dylan went and made himself a Christmas album, instead of a holiday album. It ends with him singing “amen” at the end of a non-ironic “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” Many will note that the album does not contain a performance, ironic or otherwise, of “Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel.”
Needless to say, this has raised some eyebrows. You see, three decades after Robert Allen Zimmerman released “Slow Train Coming,” people still want to know the state of his soul. How could someone that edgy, talented, important, legendary and so ’60s symbolic have turned into some kind of Second Coming obsessed Christian? That question still bothers people and some of them run magazines and newspapers.
I can’t settle the ultimate issue, of course. No one can. I will say that I see no reason, during the past decade or two, to believe that Dylan has stopped believing that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah. I see all kinds of reasons to believe that Dylan has stopped believing that Bob Dylan is the messiah, the great genius who defined a generation. I’ll leave it at that. I also know that lots of music journalists in their ’50s and ’60s still care about this issue.
So here is the top of a Los Angeles Times report on Dylan and this new wrinkle on a great Christmas mystery:
Bob Dylan’s decision to put out a Christmas album this year caught a lot of people by surprise. It wasn’t just that the preeminent songwriter of the rock era had chosen to record secular seasonal staples such as “Winter Wonderland” and “Here Comes Santa Claus” for his “Christmas in the Heart” collection.
Equally intriguing was that the musician born Robert Zimmerman and raised in a Jewish household also included exceptionally sincere versions of such quintessentially Christian carols as “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” “The First Noel” and “O Come All Ye Faithful.”
“There wasn’t any other way to do it,” the mercurial Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member told MTV’s Bill Flanagan in the only interview he’s given on the subject, a piece distributed exclusively to the International Network of Street Papers. “These songs are part of my life, just like folk songs.”
Of course, Dylan still considers himself a Jew and he is a Jew. No one has ever questioned that, have they?
The story goes on to make some interesting comments about Jewish singers and songwriters and their contribution to the Christmas season — with the great Irving Berlin at the top of the list.
However, I was struck by the fact that this feature referenced that International Network of Street Papers interview and didn’t get into this part of the verbatim transcript:
BF: You really give a heroic performance of O’ LITTLE TOWN OF BETHLEHEM The way you do it reminds me a little of an Irish rebel song. There’s something almost defiant in the way you sing, “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.” I don’t want to put you on the spot, but you sure deliver that song like a true believer.
BD: Well, I am a true believer.
Wait, there’s another interesting quote soon after that wink, wink, exchange.
BF: Some critics don’t seem to know what to make of this record. Bloomberg news said, “Some of the songs sound ironic. Does he really mean have yourself a Merry Little Christmas?” Is there any ironic content in these songs?
BD: No not at all. Critics like that are on the outside looking in. They are definitely not fans or the audience that I play to. They would have no gut level understanding of me and my work, what I can and can’t do — the scope of it all. Even at this point in time they still don’t know what to make of me.
Well, that goes without saying. That’s the tricky old infidel that Dylan-watchers have come to know and love.
P.S. I would appreciate any theories readers would want to share about the identities of the strange guys fighting and dashing through the party in the “Must Be Santa” video. Go for it.