As with a number of the songs on the album, Dylan doesn’t sing all of the words to O Little Town of Bethlehem. Generally, you might only hear all of the verses of these precious old Christmas hymns in church, and likely only a traditionally-minded church at that. In his version, Dylan sings two of the original five verses of this song: the first and the third. The lyric was written by Phillips Brooks, an Episcopal priest from Philadelphia. The story is that he was inspired while on a visit to the Holy Land in 1865, and specifically while viewing the town of Bethlehem from a spot on a nearby hill. It is an exceptionally beautiful and poignant lyric, I think (although to some reviewers the song is apparently just another dull old holiday chestnut). The two verses that Dylan sings are these:
O little town of Bethlehem
How still we see thee lie
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting Light
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight
How silently, how silently
The wondrous gift is given!
So God imparts to human hearts
The blessings of His heaven.
No ear may his His coming,
But in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive him still,
The dear Christ enters in.
The final word he sings, however, is not part of the original tune, but a feature of Bob’s own arrangement here. It is a great and a definitively conclusional amen.
Dylan, who spends most of the album, including this song, positively reveling in the gravelly nature of his voice, adopts for his great amen a voice of almost infinite softness. It is — to this listener — an amen infused with reverence, with humility and with a spirit of simple faith. It is a spine-shivering and deeply poignant moment.
To dismiss Christmas in the Heart as mere mischief is to misunderstand Dylan—and Christmas songs. In recent years, Dylan has been less folk singer than folklorist. On albums like Love and Theft (2001), Modern Times (2006), and Together Through Life (2009)—and on his fabulous satellite radio show—Dylan has been dipping further into America's musical back pages with an expansive vision of roots music that takes in not just blues and gospel and country but 19th-century parlor songs, vaudeville ragtime tunes, Tin Pan Alley's Hawaiian ballads, and other products of the ye olde pop industrial complex. Dylan's love for crooners like Bing Crosby is evident in Modern Times' "Beyond the Horizon," a note-for-note homage to the 1930s hit "Red Sails in the Sunset."
For decades, of course, Bing was "Santa Cros," Hollywood's Father Christmas, and his blithe spirit hangs over the new record. Dylan's croak is miles from Crosby's honeyed drawl, but he has a Bingian gift for sly phrasing and subtle swing. The arrangements, meanwhile, pay tribute to mid-century Christmas pop, right down to the backup vocalists who chirp in close harmony through numbers like "Winter Wonderland." Those flourishes, like the Currier and Ives-inspired CD cover art, have struck many as another high-concept Dylan jape. "Dylan plays things beyond straight, adhering to the syrupy, schlocky pop sounds of the pre-rock era," writes the reliably dense Chicago Sun-Times critic Jim DeRogatis, who awards the album zero stars out of a possible five.
Dylan, though, knows that holiday schlock is a profound tradition in its own right. Most yuletide standards are of relatively recent provenance, cooked up by pop tune-smiths during and just after World War II. But it was the special genius of those (mostly Jewish) composers to create songs that feel as if they have always existed, that can sit comfortably beside the ancient "O Come All Ye Faithful (Adeste Fideles)" and "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" as icons of that bizarre civic-religious rite, the American Christmas—the one time each year when the country's consumerist and spiritual excesses merge in a mass celebration of the enchanted and uncanny. Even the silliest Christmas tunes are surreal—cheerily, unblinkingly narrating tales of flying reindeer and talking snowmen. Then there are songs like Berlin's titanic "White Christmas," which fuses Stephen Foster's antebellum nostalgia, Jewish schmaltz, and Broadway melodicism into a secular hymn that is as dark and blue as it is "merry and bright."
Dylan gets this, and that's why Christmas in the Heart is less a joke or a provocation than a polemic. He's harnessing his unrivaled cred to remind us that Christmas ditties are as deeply American—and often, as just plain deep—as anything Alan Lomax ever recorded in an Appalachian holler. Singing (or rasping) "Silver Bells" and "Do You Hear What I Hear?" and "Here Comes Santa Claus," Dylan is the haggard, haunting voice of the musical collective unconscious—our Ghost of Christmas Past.
Read it all here.