26 August 2009

Here Comes Bob!

I received an email this morning announcing the Fall release of Bob Dylan’s new album, Christmas in the Heart. I haven’t seen a full listing as of yet, but the announcement from Columbia noted that Bob included at least “Here Comes Santa Claus,” “Winter Wonderland,” “Little Drummer Boy,” and “Must be Santa” on the album. I’ll wait to check out the full listing.

A friend once asked me if I had a version of “Shenandoah” by Bob Dylan. I didn’t have that in my collection, and so I purchased it on iTunes so that I could send it to her. While I was at it I sent her versions of the song by a number of other artists: Harry Belafonte, Bruce Springsteen, Jerry Garcia, Paul Robeson, Arlo Guthrie, Chanticleer, and several artists of note. Of all the different versions, Dylan’s was remarkably singular—he had produced what was for me a uncommon song, and had transformed the cultural artifact and changed it in a remarkably original and cogent way. He had reinvented a clichéd tradition.

And so I think I look forward to this new venture of Christmas songs. Jews have always had a strange relationship to Christmas, a holiday which seemed to take over the cultural currents for upwards of several months a year but from which they were basically excluded. Jews became spectators to a mass frenzy, but could never join honestly into it. Stephen Nissenbaum, in his book The Battle for Christmas, describes Christmas itself as “that magical season which was always beckoning, at school and in the streets, only to be withheld [from Jews] each year by the forces of religion and family.” Nissenbaum, having grown up in an Orthodox Jewish family, holds that Christmas means more to American Jewish children than to America’s Christian ones. Perhaps this accounts for the fact that one of the most popular and famous Christmas song, “White Christmas,” was written by a Jewish man, Irving Berlin. And why many Jewish artists have celebrated the holiday in song—Barbra Streisand, Neil Diamond, and now Bob Dylan. Many years ago Bob celebrated his Bar Mitzvah, and despite his conversion to Christianity in the late 1970s and early 1980s, he has publicly returned to some form of Jewish identification. He has been seen at Yom Kippur services in Minneapolis!! He has appeared on telethons for Chabad.

I’ve been wondering who thought up this project? Was Bob on the bus for the Never Ending Tour and suddenly had the idea that he would do an album of Christmas (!) songs? From where did this idea derive? What was he thinking? Or did someone approach him with the idea? What were they thinking?

What could this album possibly add to his corpus of work so obviously autobiographical?

I have grown up during the past sixty some years listening to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir sing “Little Drummer Boy.” I loved their version of this song. I can almost hear Bob’s arrangement on this song, can almost hear his voice. But for the life of me, I cannot imagine what “Here Comes Santa Claus” will sound like, or why?

In any case, the release date is October 13. I anticipate shopping in Macy’s and hearing Dylan’s voice wafting through the store as I shop (not for Christmas, of course) singing “Must Be Santa.”

It’s got to be more than serious. Or much less.


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