Writer and professor Douglas Brinkley told radio personality Don Imus recently that Bob Dylan is "a 1950s kind of guy, when America was in black & white." Brinkley went on to say that after spending time with Dylan, he walked away feeling that Dylan misses "the can-do spirit" America once possessed, when our country made quality products and didn't shop at Wal-Mart.
Capturing that post-War American optimism seems to be at the core of Dylan's latest, Christmas In The Heart, a collection of 15 covers of holiday tunes. Like Steinbeck and Dos Passos in their old age, Dylan is righteous, a steel-eyed observer of morality. He has always loved America--remember, he and The Hawks played electric guitars in the U.K. behind a massive U.S. flag--but he is more reflective now, as his old age has coincided with the greatest crisis (crises?) the country has faced since before Dylan was born close to 70 years ago. This makes the timing ripe for some wholesome Christmas songs from rock's cantankerous curmudgeon. Of course, this being the holiday season, it would be more appropriate to call him rock's biggest lump of coal.
As the record opens, we hear the jingling of sleigh bells and dreamy "oooh-oooh" backing vocals so old-fashioned they could've been lifted straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting. But then along comes Dylan to sing: "Here comes Santa Claus/ Here comes Santa Claus/ Right down Santa Claus lane."
Playing this for a neighbor last night, she looked up and said: "This is a joke, right?" Well, knowing Dylan, everything he does is part inside joke--one he's playing on us for his own amusement. But as amusing as the music is--and it is...in the way holiday music is supposed to be amusing--Dylan also sounds more sincere than he does tongue-in-cheek. His croaky baritone pushed right up front in the mix, Christmas In The Heart is--from beginning to end--one of his finest vocal moments. He croons tenderly on "Little Drummer Boy", and radiates hearthside warmth on "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas". On "The Christmas Song" he sings smoothly like an old lounge act while on ""O Come All Ye Faithful", he lends a cornpone hick accent to the Latin verses. What's truly amazing, though, is that Dylan is performing here with basically the same band he used to record this year's raw Tex-Mex blues romp Together Through Life. The main difference--with the exception of the chipper backing chorus, of course--being that he swapped guitarist Mike Campbell for R&B legend Phil Upchurch (Curtis Mayfield, Jimmy Reed).
The whole affair is one of nostalgia and that's not necessarily a bad thing for a nation trying to steer itself right after decades of wrong turns. Dylan sounds optimistic, for once, a rare musical mood for the man indeed. He longs for the days of Sousa marching bands and Red Rider BB guns and Gene Autry and Mel Torme.
Still, none of this will keep certain Dylan fans from scoffing at this fine record. Those that do, however, are denying a very important Dylan theme: He has been a diligent student of American popular song since day one. As innovative as he has been, he is equally well-versed in traditions and one of the most underappreciated traditions in American popular music is the Christmas song. And what better artist to remind us of that than the man who tore tradition to pieces some 45 years ago?