02 September 2009


So, Monday during my run I took a break from Beethoven’s 9th symphony, and listened to selections from Dylan’s Tell-Tale Signs. In “Huck’s Tune,” Dylan sings, “All the merry little elves/can go hang themselves,/my faith is as cold as can be./I'm stacked high to the roof, and I'm not without proof,/If you don't believe me, come see.” And I couldn’t help but think of the forthcoming album of Christmas songs that Dylan is issuing in October—two weeks before Halloween and just in time for the beginning of the Christmas shopping spree.

At first blush, I’m afraid I couldn’t take this album very seriously. Nothing about it made any sense to me. And then I listened again and again to “Huck’s Tune,” and tried to reconcile this glaring contradiction. Whitman says, “Do I contradict myself? Well, then, I contradict myself!” Okay, Dylan seems to be contradicting himself: but what does it mean? The Rabbis try not to explain contradictions but rather, to show how what appears to be a contradiction is, in fact, not one at all.

So, I’ve been thinking about Mandy Patimkin’s album, Mameloshen (Yiddish for mother tongue), a collection of traditional Yiddish songs and additional songs by American Jewish composers that Patimkin has translated into Yiddish. Along side such traiditonal songs as “Belz,” (Alexander Olshanetsky and Jacob Jacobs) and “Oyfn Pripetshik” (Mark Warshawsky), Patimkin offers Supercalifragilisitc-expialidocious” (Richard Sherman and Robert Sherman), “Maria,” (Leonard Bernstein), “American Tune,” (Paul Simon), and “White Christmas,” (Irving Berlin). The effect of this juxtaposition is to give to each of the resituated songs a new context and hence, a new meaning. And in light of the disdain for those merry little elves, I suspect I can hear these songs truly anew.

Here is not the time and place to explore this theme, though it is not an uninteresting one to me. Once, years ago, we studied this album in a series of summer evenings exploring the American Jewish experience. But here I want to consider that Dylan’s offerings of traditional Christmas music might provide some new perspectives on these familiar cultural icons. Certainly the new arrangements offered by Bob Dylan have to be seen as something more than just another, even highly original and idiosyncratic variation on some traditional holiday songs. Dylan has always been a commentator on American culture and society; Dylan has always been for me (at least) a perceptive and insightful critic of our ideological stances. He has been one of my master teachers. In “Red River Girl,” Dylan speaks personally that “some of us turn out the lights and we live/In the moonlight shooting by/ Some of us scare ourselves to death in the dark/To be where the angels fly.”

I am beginning to see this album of Christmas songs coming from that frightening and creative space where the angels fly. Suddenly I’m looking forward to it.


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