Spending Christmas with Bob Dylan

Dylan, we know, is a changeling—a musical shape-shifter whose extraordinary talents have twisted and turned through folk and rock, country and roots, gospel and the blues. Some of these transformations have arrived like lightening strikes and become part of the songwriter’s iconic ethos. The booing fans in England, the tale of a furious Pete Seeger at Newport, and the fans giving up tickets during the Christian era have become part of Dylan’s myth. Even now, going to a concert means attending a dramatic performance where new songs might suddenly appear and even the most familiar tunes have to be picked out from surprising arrangements.

Still, one of Dylan’s most unexpected turns took place in 2009 when, fresh from the success of Together through Life, a Christmas album appeared. Critics and fans alike were amused and perhaps a little befuddled. The royalties all went to organizations fighting hunger and there seemed little concern, at the time, that this announced some major new departure. It appeared to be a lark—an amusement fit for the season and perhaps even something of a relief from the heavy blues and troubled themes that had defined the songwriter’s newest original work. Few people still take it very seriously, and I’ve yet to hear any of the tracks appear on the various radio stations that give their airwaves over to holiday tunes this time of year.

As 2017 draws to a close, however, this one-time oddity actually looks more like the start of something big—the tip of an iceberg no one saw lurking in Dylan’s ever-muddied waters. The songs he selected are the season’s most familiar chestnuts: “Winter Wonderland,” “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” “The First Noel,” and so on. Many feature backing vocals and a chorus against arrangements made famous by Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole, and Frank Sinatra. With a few exceptions, in fact, they sound just like the dusty LPs that already felt old-fashioned when they echoed through my childhood home. The difference, of course, is that Dylan’s scratched up baritone is wildly out of place against these sweetly melodic confections.

The pleasures and paradoxes of that stark contrast have come to define Dylan’s recent albums, starting with Shadows in the Night and continuing through Fallen Angels and this year’s three-volume release, Triplicate. Christmas in the Heart, it turns out, wasn’t some strange stocking stuffer to be set aside in a box of oddities, but the announcement of something new for Dylan. Since at least 1992, he had been going back in time, once again sifting the musical sands of American folk music to find new gems—both in the covers on World Gone Wrong and in the extraordinary music created for “Love and Theft.” For Christmas on the Heart, however, he went back to a different tradition, a different sound, and a different set of songs. He went home to the popular music of his youth, to the crooners who, for many of us, still define the sentimental sound of the season. Little did we know at the time that he would linger there for nearly a decade in order to send out new musical gifts that are still arriving like burnished antiques—lovely old things wrapped up and once again made new.

Sean Latham in the Pauline McFarlin Walter Endowed Chair of English and the Co-Director of the TU Institute for Bob Dylan Studies.