Bob Dylan has at various times revolutionized folk, rock, country and gospel music. However, any Dylan fan who says he was not surprised that Bob has released an album of traditional Christmas songs is pulling your leg. Christmas In The Heart is another surprising move by an artist famous for surprises. Yet when you hear Dylan’s direct and obviously sincere readings of “O Come All Ye Faithful,” “Little Town Of Bethlehem,” and “The First Noel,” this unlikely exercise seems of a piece with the rest of Dylan’s work.
From the very first, this was an artist who made us look at the familiar with new eyes and ears. While some critics tie themselves into knots analyzing Dylan’s motives, it has usually turned out that Bob Dylan means exactly what he says. Featuring members of his touring band along with Los Lobos’ David Hidalgo and Chess Records vet Phil Upchurch, Christmas In The Heart is Bob Dylan’s celebration of family, community, faith and shared memory. And a timely celebration it is. Recognizing the world wide problem of hunger, Bob Dylan has donated all of his proceeds from the record, in perpetuity, to organizations around the world to help with hunger and homelessness.
We sat down to talk in the Waterfront Plaza Hotel in Oakland on a rainy, windy, October day.
BILL FLANAGAN: Is recording a Christmas album something you’ve had on your mind for a while?
BOB DYLAN: Yeah, every so often it has crossed my mind. The idea was first brought to me by Walter Yetnikoff, back when he was President of Columbia Records.
BILL FLANAGAN: Did you take him seriously?
BOB DYLAN: Well, sure I took him seriously.
BILL FLANAGAN: But it didn’t happen. How come?
BOB DYLAN: He wasn’t specific. Besides, there was always a glut of records out around that time of year and I didn’t see how one by me could make any difference.
BILL FLANAGAN: What was Christmas like around your town when you were growing up?
BOB DYLAN: Well, you know, plenty of snow, jingle bells, Christmas carolers going from house to house, sleighs in the streets, town bells ringing, nativity plays. That sort of thing.
BILL FLANAGAN: Your family was Jewish – as a kid did you ever feel left out of the Christmas excitement?
BOB DYLAN: No, not at all.
BILL FLANAGAN: What’s your idea of a good Christmas Dinner?
BOB DYLAN: Mashed potatoes and gravy, roast turkey and collard greens, turnip greens, biscuit dressing, corn bread and cranberry sauce.
BILL FLANAGAN: Have you spent any Christmases overseas and been struck by how the holiday is celebrated in other countries?
BOB DYLAN: I was in Mexico City once and they do a lot of re-enactment scenes of Joseph and Mary looking for a place to stay.
BILL FLANAGAN: How do you like to spend the week between Christmas and New Years?
BOB DYLAN: Doing nothing – maybe reflecting on things.
BILL FLANAGAN: Why do you think Christmas has better songs than other holidays?
BOB DYLAN: I don’t know. That’s a good question. Maybe because it’s so worldwide and everybody can relate to it in their own kind of way.
BILL FLANAGAN: Very often when contemporary artists do Christmas records, they look for a new angle. John Fahey did instrumental folk variations on holiday songs, Billy Idol did a rock and roll Christmas album, Phil Spector put the Wall of Sound around the Christmas tree and the Roches did kind of a kooky left-field collection. You played this right down the middle, doing classic holiday songs in traditional arrangements. Did you know going in you wanted to play it straight?
BOB DYLAN: Oh sure, there wasn’t any other way to play it. These songs are part of my life, just like folk songs. You have to play them straight too.
BILL FLANAGAN: There’s something new that happens when your voice goes up against the very smooth background singers and old-fashioned arrangements. It adds a new flavor to the mix. When you do I’LL BE HOME FOR CHRISTMAS, it sounds really forlorn, like you’re singing the song in jail and this is your one phone call. Do you ever approach singing a song like an actor?
BOB DYLAN: Not any more then Willie or Nat King Cole would. The songs don’t require much acting. They kind of play themselves.
BILL FLANAGAN: Do you try to go for different emotions on different takes?
BOB DYLAN: Not really. The emotions would pretty much be the same on any singular take. The inflections would maybe differ if we changed the key and sometimes that might affect the emotional resonance.
BILL FLANAGAN: When I hear your version of HARK! THE HERALD ANGELS SING, it makes me think of a lonely fellow outside the church, looking through the window at the congregation, wishing he were in there. Did any of these songs surprise you when you heard them played back?
BOB DYLAN: No, they were pretty much the same going in as going out. You can already hear them in your head before you begin.
BILL FLANAGAN: Any Christmas songs you like but you did not think you could do?
BOB DYLAN: Not really. There were ones I didn’t want to do, but not any that I didn’t think I could do. The idea was to record the best known ones.
BILL FLANAGAN: CHRISTMAS BLUES is an old Dean Martin song. What attracted you to that?
BOB DYLAN: It’s just a beautiful song.
BILL FLANAGAN: Stan Lynch once told me about you and him slipping out of a rehearsal with the Heartbreakers to go see Dean, Sinatra and Sammy Davis. What appealed to you about those guys?
BOB DYLAN: I don’t know, maybe the camaraderie. On the other hand I wasn’t much into that whole scene actually – it left a lot of people out.
BILL FLANAGAN: MUST BE SANTA is a real jumping polka. Did you hear a lot of polka bands growing up?
BOB DYLAN: Yeah, I heard a few.
BILL FLANAGAN: I never heard that song before. Where did you hear it?
BOB DYLAN: I first heard that song years ago on one of those “Sing Along with Mitch” records. But this version comes from a band called Brave Combo. Somebody sent their record to us for our radio show. They’re a regional band out of Texas that takes regular songs and changes the way you think about them. You oughta hear their version of Hey Jude.
BILL FLANAGAN: The way you do WINTER WONDERLAND makes me think of Gene Autry and Roy Rodgers, the singing cowboys in the old movies. Even in John Wayne films, there’d always be a scene back at the fort where an Irish band was playing, or the Sons of the Pioneers were singing. Did you have a favorite cowboy singer as a kid?
BOB DYLAN: Yeah, Tex Ritter.
BILL FLANAGAN: What about Gene and Roy?
BOB DYLAN: Yeah, they were okay, but Tex Ritter was my favorite. He was way more heavy. There was more gravity to him.
BILL FLANAGAN: Have you heard “Christmas on Death Row,” the rap Christmas record?
BOB DYLAN: No I don’t think so.
BILL FLANAGAN: Do you listen to rap music?
BOB DYLAN: I don’t listen to rap radio stations and I don’t play rap songs on the jukebox, and I don’t go to rap shows – So no I guess I don’t listen to rap music all that much.
BILL FLANAGAN: What do you think of rap music?
BOB DYLAN: I love rhyming for rhyming sake. I think that’s an incredible art form.
BILL FLANAGAN: There’s a lonely quality in the way you do SILVER BELLS. You were a young man when you moved from Minnesota to New York City. Was Christmas very different in New York?
BOB DYLAN: Christmas was pretty much the same in New York, only more so.
BILL FLANAGAN: Did it make you homesick?
BOB DYLAN: Not really, I didn’t think about it that much. I didn’t bring the past with me when I came to New York. Nothing back there would play any part in where I was going.
BILL FLANAGAN: Hearing you sing ADESTE FIDELES reminds me of being an altar boy at Midnight Mass. The priests all had to lead the singing, and it didn’t matter if they were singers or not, they belted it out. Have you ever sung in a foreign language before?
BOB DYLAN: I’ve sung in French, Italian and Spanish. Over the years, Columbia has asked me to do records in those languages and I recorded stuff here and there. None of the tracks have been released though. It’s hard deciding whether to do a translation of one of my own songs, or an original song in one of those languages – which I’m actually more partial to. I’ve always wanted to do some Edith Piaf songs.
BILL FLANAGAN: LA VIE EN ROSE?
BOB DYLAN: Yeah. That one and a couple of others. SOUS LE CIEL DE PARIS, POUR MOI TOUT SEULE and maybe one or two more.
BILL FLANAGAN: What stopped you?
BOB DYLAN: Well, I can hear myself doing them in my head, but I’d need written arrangements to pull it off and I’m not sure who could do that.
BILL FLANAGAN: Which singers do you associate with Christmas?
BOB DYLAN: Johnny Mathis and Nat King Cole. Doris Day.
BILL FLANAGAN: What about Bing Crosby?
BOB DYLAN: Sure, White Christmas was always a big song.
BILL FLANAGAN: I always get choked up at the end of GOING MY WAY when the old priest’s mother comes walking toward him on Christmas Eve and Bing watches from the door of the church then picks up his suitcase and walks off into the snow – TURA, LURA, LURA playing in the background. You can’t get any more Christmasy than that. Did movies have a big effect on how you saw the world growing up?
BOB DYLAN: I think so. I lived in a small town and movies were a window into the outside world.
BILL FLANAGAN: CHRISTMAS ISLAND is a wacky song! Santa’s going to sail in with your presents in a canoe. Where did that come from? You ever been to Christmas Island?
BOB DYLAN: No I’ve never been there. I have no idea where the song comes from, who wrote or even if there is such a place.
BILL FLANAGAN: Your song THREE ANGELS always reminds me of the holidays. Did you ever sit down to write a Christmas song?
BOB DYLAN: I have never done that. It’s something to think about though.
BILL FLANAGAN: You have grandchildren. What do you think they’ll make of this record? Did it occur to you making this record that years from now your grandchildren will play this album for their own kids?
BOB DYLAN: I don’t know what my grandchildren think of any of my records. I don’t know if they’ve even heard them. Maybe the older ones.
BILL FLANAGAN: You’re a lot more loyal to these melodies than you are to the melodies of the songs you’ve written. Do you figure these tunes can’t be messed with?
BOB DYLAN: If you want to get to the heart of them they can’t be, no.
BILL FLANAGAN: Your version of THE CHRISTMAS SONG is right in the pocket. You slide into that song like you’ve been singing it all your life. You also sing the intro (“All through the year we waited…”) which most people leave out. I don’t think Nat King Cole used that intro – why did you bring it back?
BOB DYLAN: Well, I figured the guy who wrote it put it in there deliberately. It definitely creates tension, predicts what you are about to hear.
BILL FLANAGAN: I think you did drop the “goodies” on the sleigh. Did something about that bother you?
BOB DYLAN: No not really. I don’t think I thought of it until you mentioned it. I try my best to be exact, but sometimes things just fall away. We probably recorded the song, got the feel right and moved on. Most likely we didn’t even listen back. Just moved on to something else. I don’t think that’s something I would have noticed anyway.
BILL FLANAGAN: 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.
BOB DYLAN: Well, I am a true believer.
BILL FLANAGAN: You know, some people will think that Bob Dylan doing a Christmas album is meant to be ironic or a put-on. This sounds to me like one of the most sincere records you’ve ever made. Did anybody at your record company or management resist the idea?
BOB DYLAN: No it was my record company who compelled me to do it.
BILL FLANAGAN: Why now?
BOB DYLAN: Well, it just came my way now, at this time. Actually, I don’t think I would have been experienced enough earlier anyway.
BILL FLANAGAN: 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?
BOB DYLAN: 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.
BILL FLANAGAN: Derek Barker in the Independent, compared this record with the shock of you going electric. So many artists have released Christmas records, from Bing Crosby to Huey Piano Smith. Why is it a shock if you do it?
BOB DYLAN: You’ll have to ask them.
BILL FLANAGAN: The Chicago Tribune felt this record needed more irreverence. Doesn’t that miss the point?
BOB DYLAN: Well sure it does, that’s an irresponsible statement anyway. Isn’t there enough irreverence in the world? Who would need more? Especially at Christmas time.
BILL FLANAGAN: The profits from this album are going to buy Christmas dinners for folks who are having a hard time financially. When I heard that I thought of the Woody Guthrie song PRETTY BOY FLOYD – “Here’s a Christmas dinner for the families on relief.”
BOB DYLAN: Exactly. PRETTY BOY FLOYD. “Pretty Boy grabbed the log chain and the deputy grabbed his gun.” Did you ever notice how Pretty Boy Floyd looks exactly like babe Ruth?
BILL FLANAGAN: Yeah, I have.
BOB DYLAN: Did you ever think it could be the same guy?
BILL FLANAGAN: Maybe they’re interchangeable?
BOB DYLAN: Yeah, in the real world Pretty Boy would be batting clean up for the Yankees and Babe Ruth would be robbing banks.
BILL FLANAGAN: Yeah, and they’re both legends.
BOB DYLAN: Right.
BILL FLANAGAN: Why did you pick Feeding America, Crisis UK and The World Food Program to give the proceeds of this record to?
BOB DYLAN: Because they get food straight to the people. No military organization, no bureaucracy, no governments to deal with.
BILL FLANAGAN: Do you still send out Christmas cards?
BOB DYLAN: I haven’t for a while.
BILL FLANAGAN: Do you have a favorite Christmas album?
BOB DYLAN: Maybe the Louvin Brothers. I like all the religious Christmas albums. The ones in Latin. The songs I sang as a kid.
BILL FLANAGAN: A lot of people like the secular ones.
BOB DYLAN: Religion isn’t meant for everybody.
BILL FLANAGAN: What sort of gifts do you like to give?
BOB DYLAN: I try to match the person with the gift.
BILL FLANAGAN: Are you a last minute shopper?
BOB DYLAN: Always.
BILL FLANAGAN: Do you drop any hints about what you hope to get from your family?
BOB DYLAN: Nope. Their well-being – that’s enough of a gift for me.
BILL FLANAGAN: I know we’re out of time but I have to ask, what’s the best Christmas gift you ever got?
BOB DYLAN: Let me think… oh yeah, I think it was a sled.