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the pioneer of Dylan Studies; writer, public speaker, critic; became a Doctor of Letters in 2015 (awarded by the University of York, UK)

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Sunday, December 20, 2009

CHRISTMAS IN THE HEART

OK. Here goes... I love it! And admire it.

Those Amazon snippets were lethal, the album itself a real and warm delight. (The abyss between the two proves that snippets are strongly counterproductive and should be dumped as a marketing tool for evermore.)

But the album itself, from very first hearing, earns its place in the Christmas canon, along with the Phil Spector album and the Elvis one. It works, as Peter Doggett suggests, not least because (and this is in strong contrast to Modern Times particularly) “its intentions and aims are so modest, and its pretensions are so few”. Everything people have written about its authenticity of spirit, its clear sincerity, seems exactly right. And though this sincerity means, for the 68-year-old Bob Dylan, harking back to the musical heralds of the 1940s-50s, a blog comment contributor was right to say that there is no big orchestra, no florid choir, no grandiosity.

Which is why for me the carols on the album are a particular and complete success. I don't know how it works to combine/alternate, as Dylan does, the clear and clean-cut, scrupulous 1950s voices with his own decrepit vocal struggles, since the two emanate such utterly different eras and atmospheres, but it does work. It can only be modesty of size on both sides that gives this unity. The still small voices on, for instance, 'Hark The Herald Angels Sing', sounds nothing like the Ray Charles Singers or any massed choir; they remind me, if anything, of the voices at the beginning of 'Take A Message To Mary' on Self Portrait; both have a kindly tone and gentle intimacy, as if explaining the story to very young children. (The blend of male and female voices is also exactly what Roy Orbison was aiming for on the dum-dum-dum-dum-bee-doo-wahs of 'Only The Lonely' - a record from 1960 but which shimmered with the same lovely aural richness captured by the valve equipment that made 1950s records glisten so distinctively.)

In inspired parallel to the singers, Dylan and the two - just two - violins, the plain piano and their unobtrusive support are small-scale too. Their valiant straightforwardness is an affecting enactment of humility - and unlikely as this is, the picture it conjures in my mind is of a little rural church in the English Middle Ages, with a small congregation of ardently believing peasants, back before church organs replaced the music-making that made the worshippers participants. In this way it's close to folk music, and to semi-pagan hymn singing inside draughty, bucolic, poor church walls, not far from the stables and the cowsheds and the inn. This is so much fresher and more vivid than the approach we could have expected from the Bob Dylan of 2009.

Similarly, on 'The First Noel' - which ends so bravely - rather than replicating some Hollywood Cathedral On Capitol Records 1955, the solicitous choral voices emerge like a small huddle of carol singers, careful and polite at the lamplit snowy door. So strong is the effect of simplicity in all this that it survives even the rather grander upward key-change toward the end of 'O Little Town Of Bethlehem', which declares itself with a more artful tip of the musical hat, a retrospective throat-clearing glance as Dylan pulls back to reoccupy his more customary starring role and thus to give us that "Amen" that ends the album. And it is the most charming "Amen" you'll ever hear, and so one of the very best signings-off he's ever created at a Dylan album's end.

As for the rest, well, it all offers the same straightforward attentiveness and artistic sincerity - that "authenticity" Andrew Muir referred to hearing within Bob's 'Waggoner's Lad'.

The particulars that come to mind tonight include these: the lightly sinuous guitar or mandolin figures on 'Do You Hear What I Hear?', the lovely piano on 'I'll Be Home For Christmas' and the many pleasures of his singing, despite it all. Not least: the appropriately fleeting way his voice goes away on the phrase "gone away" on 'Winter Wonderland'; the delicate vocal shepherding of the little lamb on 'Do You Hear What I Hear?'; the terrific way he sings "now---" before the second bridge on 'Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas', and the empathy he radiates as he sings "their treasures" on 'Silver Bells' (enacting the way a child might value toy "treasures"); the vocal ease on 'The Christmas Blues' and 'Christmas Island'; the pleasure of hearing him sing "sinners reconciled" - the original text, as it were, from which an earlier Bob Dylan had spun its variation within 'Lord Protect My Child'; the funny panache with which on 'Must Be Santa' he sings "who laughs this way: 'ho ho ho'?" in a way no Santa Claus will ever better on record or in magic grotto; and that other enactment, in which his voice strains to reach "the highest bough---" on 'Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas'.

Ah, and then there's the one moment where he doesn't, if you like, sing the song quite straight - the one diversion into noticeable vocal improvisation - but since it's just one moment, it's beguiling rather than disruptive. It comes on the same song when, the first time around after "Next year", he phrases "all our troubles will be out of sight" as a precipitate wandering-off (that briefly reminds me of his wonderful route through Elvis' 'Can't Help Falling In Love' all those decades ago).

There's also the quiet way he keeps faith with the context in which 'I'll Be Home For Christmas' and 'Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas' were written, in that part of the early 1940s when even the Americans had joined in the Second World War and soldiers were wistfully far from home. And what Dylan sews through these songs is the consequent sense that it's death that might or might not - "if the fates allow" - keep the singer from the Christmas hearth. But then Dylan's voice adds in the seemingly more autobiographical hint that death must come relatively soon for him too, not as wartime soldier but as frail, growing-elderly man: that he's conscious that after all those Christmases that quintessentially feel timeless, time is running out and there will inevitably be a Christmas for which he cannot make it home.

Just as Andrew Muir said of World Gone Wrong, this is a collection of non-Dylan songs that adds up to an authentic Dylan album. (And of course that means these days that it's a relief not to have to wonder which parts of the lyrics he's stolen or borrowed from elsewhere.) But to reverse the emphasis, it's partly so terrific because the songs, these non-Dylan songs, are mostly so very good. So enormously, strikingly better than those on Together Through Life or for the most part on Modern Times.

(A couple of small demurs here: it doesn't speak to anyone looking for political commentary on that little town of Bethlehem of course, and as wife Sarah has pointed out, 'Here Comes Santa Claus', cheery and catchy though it is, palpably lies when it tells children it doesn't matter if you're rich or poor, Santa loves you just the same. This might be true of Jesus, but not of Santa, who has always given blatantly better presents to the children of the rich.)

On the whole, though, these are very strong songs, and built to last. Like Dylan's early songs - like 'Blowin' In The Wind' and unlike 'Ain't Talkin'' - the repertoire he offers here can speak to anyone in our culture.

Yet with Christmas In The Heart it isn't just the songs but the interpretation. It isn't just the songs but the album. It already feels as if I've known it all my life yet sounds entirely fresh. It's all so accurate and perfectly in the best spirit. No contamination by knowingness or soppy ingratiation. No fakery. A real Bob Dylan album.

45 Comments:

Anonymous Lee Morgan said...

Michael, how thrilled I am to learn you enjoyed Christmas In The Heart. It is for me the decade’s second best Dylan album, one filled with warm and clear playing, thoughtful arrangements, delightful backing vocals and, unlike his last two studio releases, the sense of a fully committed Dylan enjoying the studio atmosphere.

The arrangements are simple and fantastic, his vocals clear, and there are moments I look forward to hearing again and again. There is the held note at the end of Do You Hear What I Hear?, the light breeze of female vocals midway through Hark the Herald Angels Sing, the presidents’ names sprinkled among the reindeer on Must Be Santa... in fact, the tree is so overloaded with baubles, it is hard to single any of them out.

I actually recommended the album to Robert Hilburn on my first listen in October, then worried I might have been hasty. Would the glitter wear off, and was I holding the album to a lesser standard given it was for charity? Not at all. As with “Love and Theft”, I have been drawn back to Christmas In The Heart time after time, not feeling obliged to play it because it is Dylan, but wanting to play it because it is Dylan on form.

I enjoy the effort and good humour in his voice, the crisp playing of his band, and absolutely love the subtle backing of the singers, which is really quite beautiful. It all comes together to form an authentic, wintry collection; one that has been enjoyed by everyone from my 5 year old nephew, to my twentysomething friends who have cursed Dylan’s name since I took them to one of his concerts last May.

How happy I am that he has added this album to his catalogue, and that he ends the decade as he started it: on an upswing.

10:48 pm  
Blogger Richard Lager said...

I'm glad you like, Michael!
It's a genuine Bob Dylan album and as unexpected as it could be and once you've listened to it, it sounds like you've known it all along!
I'm also glad to know that Nige likes it too.
Ah, ce Bob ... !

10:55 pm  
Anonymous Russell said...

What struck me was that this was the first time that I had genuinely listened to any of these songs, instead of treating them as background to the whole Christmas experience, and what good songs many of them were. "Little Drummer Boy", "Do You Hear What I Hear" and "Silver Bells" being particular favourites.

They're good because they achieve what they set out to achieve and Bob sings them in a way that shows that he both understands and loves the songs and, for that reason, "World Gone Wrong" is a great comparison that hadn't occurred to me.

2:06 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm surprised, and glad that Michael can enjoy the record; despite the phlegm which is so evident in part. I wanted Michael to enjoy the record not so he would agree with others like myself, but because Michael I'm sure hopes every Dylan record will be one he can enjoy, and so he got one for Christmas.
You know though if you hang on every word, if you just sit down on the vocals, and subject them to scrutiny they stand up.
Is it possible to put across a melody if you can't sing the correct notes? No it isn't, and the notes (by far the most of them) are correct.
Listen to "Hark" it's all there naked as a child in a cradle.
Consider too that almost all the singing on the record is really pretty sweet, and those parts which just go off the rails, how easy would it be for Dylan to just punch in a "corrected" phrase? He doesn't bother though, and thank god, I'm one who felt several of his albums (Infidels for one) suffered from the phase he went through where he took numerous passes on his vocals while not singing live with the band.
All in can say is quit anticipating the broken spoke, and listen closer. For every moment where his voice crumbles, there are three or four where you are (even I on first listen) wincing ahead of a note you know he can't reach, and instead you think, "how did he do that." Amen indeed. Pat Ford

4:26 am  
Anonymous Yvonne said...

Hurray,I'm so glad you like it too. Merry Christmas, Michael. Best wishes, Yvonne

4:32 am  
Anonymous Kieran said...

Nice review, Michael.

I'm in two minds still with this album: I still can't accept him as a crooner since his voice plainly can't croon. So the rawness works on some songs better than others.

I enjoy The Christmas Song most of all. I think he wraps his gruffness round that tune quite elegantly, he forces nothing, and manages a warmth that's quite apt for the song.

However, I would have thought he'd manage the definitive Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, but his lisping and rattling is distracting for me, and he doesn't always reach that glorious melody without some pained effort.

Overall it's enjoyable but it's a novelty, too. It's a seasonal album. Bob attempting the Latin on Adeste Fideles could smack of arrogance, not humility, but I think he barely deserves the benefit of the doubt here, given his comical "moose" exclamation.

The strong points of this record are very strong, though. Do You Hear What I Hear almost sounds like a decently strong album track on a good Dylan album. It's musical and he owns it in a way which contrasts nicely with the usual floral and choral arrangements. Likewise, he attemps a successful Drummer Boy.

As a singer of ballads, he remains compelling. But once or twice I'd find myself listening to this disc and smiling at it's straightness and the beauty of the singers, but wishing he'd gone a bit further, maybe written a tune or two, maybe been a little less predictable.

But as he rightly says somewhere, there's more than enough irreverance in the world right now. So maybe his treatment of these songs is spot on.

By the way, do you agree with Sean Wilentz (I think) remark that Dylan cover-albums are usually harbingers of some new direction? If this is true, I wonder what's in store next year...

10:34 am  
Anonymous McHenry Boatride said...

Michael - you've made my Christmas!

"C'est la vie", say the old folks, it goes to show you never can tell.

12:27 pm  
Blogger Tom Mcvittie said...

Michael, you descibe Christmas in the Heart perfectly.I've played the album at least twice a day since buying it weeks ago. For the future..... ''I feel a change comin' on '' still exciting times to be a fan of Mr Zimmerman. Have yourself a merry little Christmas. Best wishes Tom

12:42 pm  
Blogger Jack said...

It was good to read your very thoughtful review of the album, which I feel will enrich my future listening. As I wrote in my last posting, I have an ingrained tendency from chidhood to enjoy virtually anything he does (Although that does fall short of hearing anything good in some of his live performances e.g. Nottingham Nov 2005), so I was wondering if my enjoyment of CITH was just symptomatic of this-particularly as my partner expresses feelings of torture when I play it! Thank you.

1:39 pm  
Blogger Judas Priest said...

Amazed and delighted you like it as much as you do Michael. Hope it's not just the mulled wine talking!!!

2:17 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well said, Pat. My wife, a classical pianist who specialises in lieder accompaniment, shakes her head in bemusement at those who say that Dylan can no longer sing. However cracked or worn the voice may be, when he wants to get a note, he gets it.

(And desiring that the phlegm or the cracks would go away is no more relevant than wishing they would put a roof on Stonehenge.)
[MZ]

2:23 pm  
Blogger Frank said...

Oh, my word! Such excitement! It must be nearly Christmas!

How can an album of such ordinary ditties sung karaoke-style attract such critical approbation? Judas Priest naughtily speculates on the mulled wine factor. Or is all this funny weather we’re having at the moment being caused by a magnetic storm that is also knocking critical compasses out of true? Michael rightly gives much attention to the arrangements of the songs, and clearly a lot of care and thought has gone into them. But then Dylan starts climbing for the high notes and brings the whole thing crashing down. Okay, so he does actually hit right notes (and in the right order), but when have we started commending a singer simply for singing the right notes?

The whole strange venture of Christmas in the Heart reminds me of Dr Johnson’s mischievous comment on women preachers: "Sir, a woman's preaching is like a dog's walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all."

11:25 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

glad you have found christmas in your heart. anyone suggested gavin bryars' jesus' blood never failed me yet as a similar piece - troubled voice making mundane words profound? certainly dylan is trying hard with his christmas songs. and anyone who wants to claim that all his albums are the same now has some explaining to do. i like the record. it is what it is.

6:28 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Congratulations! That can't have been easy. Let's hope there's another video.

6:33 pm  
Blogger Michael Gray said...

Let's hope there isn't another video. As with 99% of videos, they're reductive. The one for 'Must Be Santa' elbows aside the universal feel of timeless, fun muscularity and the blurry-edged rambunctious red and gold glow of the audio for that pallid and tedious scene from some hopelessly Californian TV series, drained of all lifeblood and zest. Who wants to see it reduced to an outtake from an OC party scene?

7:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great article on a great album. Sir, you are very harsh about Modern Times, i recently played it very loud while drinking Jameson and let me tell you that album really rocks. Aint Talkin, c'mon its a devastating song and pretty eerie live too. Together Thru Life Rocks Period!!
Thank you very much!!
Merry Christmas.

11:06 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The videos don't do a thing for me. The only one I ever liked was the Most of the Time video.
The proper notes are, I'd think,the least of the charms of Dylan's vocals on the record, and only mentioned by me as a point of order. Pat Ford

12:39 am  
Blogger Judas Priest said...

Yep, completely agree re videos in general. "Reductive" is the perfect word.

Listened again to CITH this morning. My view is unchanged. Like about a third of it which is more than I thought and that surprises me in itself. Way prefer MT and TTL but as an oddity entry in the canon, it just about works. Sort of.

P.S. I also agree about the whole snippet thing as a marketing tool. They shouldn't mislead but somehow, that's about the only thing they achieve.

2:07 pm  
Anonymous G. P. Skratz said...

It's a fair argument that the songs crafted by the professional songwriters of tin pan alley are "better," more polished & "universal," than the scruffy product of the folk tradition or even the songs of the college-educated beat angels now building on that tradition. I wouldn't agree, but it's fair. Cole Porter never used a construction as sloppy as "I'm ready for to fade." But the argument is downright shocking coming from the author of the "Bob Dylan Encyclopedia."

Allen Ginsberg once told me, in a giddy moment, "Everything Dylan does is interesting," & I agree, being a bit giddy my own self. So it's fun to see Dylan's more daft expressions appreciated. But it's considerably LESS fun when it's at the expense of brilliant recent work.

The POV context of avenging one's father's death is not as universally shared as the celebration of Christmas, itself not ALTOGETHER "universal," but Shakespeare's "Hamlet" has remained a bit hit among fans of high art for centuries--& I predict the same for "Ain't Talkin'."

9:23 pm  
Anonymous Carl Finlay said...

hey michael
i really cant agree with you on this album...but thats no big deal :) have you seen his recent performance of Woody Guthrie's "Do re mi" on the history channels show "the people speak"....it is what i consider a very fine performance and outshines almost anything he has been doing in the studio or on stage recently. i hope there is more of this quality to come.
here is a link if you havent seen it already:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nAreYG-QNMo
have a very merry xmas

6:38 pm  
Blogger Frank said...

I agree with Carl Finlay on Do Re Mi – a fine performance (although a little quiet on the youtube clip and, irritatingly, the lip-syncing is out). But what is great about this, and indeed much from Dylan’s recent tour (and TTL), is that the delivery is flexible, nuanced and expressive, unlike on CITH, where the energy (such as there is) seems fixed on achieving fidelity to the tune of whatever ditty he is singing at time.

I have tried again to get to like CITH and have failed. I simply cannot see the point of trying to meld the wrecked, inflexible voice with the schmaltzy tunes and arrangements. If Dylan wanted to listen to the Christmases of his youth, why didn’t he simply wander over to his juke box? If he wanted to have fun with his band, why did he not simply have an unmiked jam session? If he wanted to give money to a charity, why didn’t he just silently dip his hand into his deep pocket?

I saw the real horror the album in the faces of my children (both of whom have been to a number of Dylan concerts) when I played it to them over Christmas. And actually I was embarrassed when I realised just how ghastly the album (especially the carols) was. I’m still scratching my head in puzzlement.

11:41 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If Greil Marcus had made his famous comment about this album instead of 'Self Portrait', I would have agreed with him.

Brian O'Connell

3:37 pm  
Blogger Michael Gray said...

I'd like to respond to Mr/Ms Skratz, who wrote this:

It's a fair argument that the songs crafted by the professional songwriters of tin pan alley are "better," more polished & "universal," than the scruffy product of the folk tradition or even the songs of the college-educated beat angels now building on that tradition. I wouldn't agree, but it's fair. Cole Porter never used a construction as sloppy as "I'm ready for to fade." But the argument is downright shocking coming from the author of the "Bob Dylan Encyclopedia."

You've misconstrued my meaning. As it happens, I've never changed my mind about the severe - indeed almost total - limitations inherent in the songs of Cole Porter and his ilk since having referred to their shallow, slick "sophistication" in Song & Dance Man, long before The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia: as for instance here, in writing about Elvis Presley's original achievement:

A final point on Presley’s sexuality. It is true that the pre-rock chart-toppers and radio-favourites, the night-club stars whose idea of perfection was a Cole Porter song and the Nelson Riddle Orchestra, dealt with sex too - but never, never with passion. Physical contact, desire, sexual aspiration always come across From Sinatra, Tormé, Fitzgerald, Tony Bennett and the rest as a kind of world-weary joke that goes with old age.

Of course I was so much younger then, I'm older than that now - but I haven't changed my mind (which is why that passage was retained in Song & Dance Man III and then used again in the Presley entry in The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia).

So in writing that the songs on Christmas in the Heart were mostly good ones, and Dylan's own on his previous two albums mostly not so, I wasn't holding the virtues of "professionalism" above those of either folk music or the likes of 'Mr. Tambourine Man' (inside which "I'm ready for to fade" isn't the least bit "sloppy"). I don't see how you read a denigration of either folksong or decent Bob Dylan songs into what I wrote.

And yet obviously there can be appealing, affecting and well-crafted "professional" songs. My own adolescence was warmed by loads of them, made into many wondrous records. To take one sustained case: Leiber & Stoller were Tin Pan Alleycats yet wrote powerful material for pre-army Elvis, designed to suit his blues-soaked artistic persona rather than their own taste (which was for the world of Peggy Lee).

The songs on CITH are, in my opinion, strong enough to explain their wide and long-lasting appeal. That's all I meant. Not one of them is by Cole Porter (though it's true Mel Tormé co-wrote 'The Christmas Song') and not all are from Tin Pan Alley. 'Here Comes Santa Claus' was co-written by Gene Autry. ‘O Come All Ye Faithful’ was written in the 18th Century by English hymnist John Francis Wade, exiled from England for his Catholic beliefs; ‘O Little Town Of Bethlehem’ by an Episcopal priest (Phillips Brooks) in the 1860s; the English carol 'The First Noel' was probably written in the 12th or 13th Century: rather earlier than Tin Pan Alley (or even Hamlet)...

4:55 pm  
Anonymous Kieran said...

In fairness to Cole Porter & the other writers of great Hollywood show tunes, they wouldn't have been allowed to publish raunchy music. Nor would such stuff dawn on them, as it was either underground - or it hadn't been invented yet. Dylan doesn't do "sex" either, in songs.

As composers, they were the equal of Bob, but they operated in a different genre - and a different era - completely...

8:11 pm  
Anonymous Carl Finlay said...

Fair point Kieran. But as far as "raunchy" or "sex" music being underground or not invented, i would say underground is more accurate. The blues has its fair share of raunchy content, likewise a lot of Jazz and rhythm+blues seem quite quite sexual to me. Caribbean folk music, such as Mento and Calypso is notoriously x-rated. Even the less exotic Irish and English folk traditions have songs of seduction and sex- "the creel" (brilliantly performed by Paul Brady)is a great example of that-
Anyway with regard to "Christmas in the heart" I have listened to it again and there are moments i enjoy. I get a kick out of Must be Santa its great craic!(to use an Irish expression), and the video is bizarre and surreal to me...wig and santa hat....literally laughed out load when i saw it :) Christmas blues,Drummer boy and Christmas Island iare okay too. But the rest of it is a barrel Im not interested in scraping again unfortunately.
I Wonder what 2010 will hold for Bob Dylan enthusiasts? What ever happened about that Hank Williams album? maybe that will see the light of day.Would love another Scorsese movie and/or more Theme time radio. But I for one hope his touring schedule isn't as hectic and that he takes a rest, so he can return to both stage and studio artistically and vocally invigorated.
I just noticed that the word verification thing i have to do before my comment is enabled is "hoarser" I hope that's not a bad omen!! hehehe

5:56 am  
Anonymous Kieran said...

Hey Carl,

I think the likes of Cole Porter were writing for a different constituency than your average bluesman or woman, but "raunchy" music is only good when it's on the level. Prince writes raunchy songs, but more often than not they sound fake, like somebody just said a naughty word for shock value.

I love old Hollywood music, Rogers & Hammerstein, Lerner & Loew, etc. I think they're of their time, but they've given us some of the most musical, whimsical, romantic music, and they're written within a discipline which so far no rock star has been able to successfully crack (and I include the odious Who operas and Paul Simon's Capeman show).

What will the next decade hold for Bob? I hope a new direction. I'm tired of the twangy guitar, the civil-war uniforms and gentrified blues. I dunno what he'll do next, but a change would be nice and maybe some girls, too! Yeah, I like the sound of the girls on Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.

Happy New Year!

12:38 pm  
Blogger Judas Priest said...

The Hank Williams project would be nice for 2010 and there is also the soundtrack to the road movie with Forest Whitaker that Bob was recruited for and that TTL grew from. Uncut mentioned that it could include several new versions of older songs such as "What Good Am I?" which could be interesting...

Of course what I really want is a new album with Charlie Sexton being a prominent force within..probably asking too much given we got 2 new albums and a bootleg series entry in little over 12 months but I can't help but dream....

3:19 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Cole Porter the "equal of Bob " ....oh, I see as "composers ". I believe that a major factor is the age at which these greats produced their work.
I believe that I am right in saying that Dylan was, to quote a phrase, "just a kid " when he produced much of his most celebrated works and under 25 when he lit the fuse with BIBH/H61R. Porter, Gershwin, Rodgers,etc were considerably older when they produced their most celebrated works. ( A further distinction is that the Tin Pan Alley composers tended to have partners similar in fact to Leiber & Stoller or Lennon % McCartney ).

The critical difference is that Dylan can perform a great version of " Soon " with nothing but an old acoustic guitar.

I know that some Dylan fans demonstrate a kind of frustrated hostility to Dylan's 21st Century artistic and commercial success...but how wonderful to see the great Modern Times and L&T on lists of albums of the decade, Dylan concerts in the USA top 50, Chronicles in the top 50 books and Dylan on Amazon's top 10 above U2!!
( also Together Through Life on year end lists )

Probably more significant than the above and one of the reasons Dylans voice will linger just as long as Cole Porter,etc, is the world wide appeal of Dylan ... key in virtually any Dylan song on, say, You Tube and you will find 20 year olds in their bedrooms singing note perfect renditions of Buckets of Rain,etc ( '65 poster, of course, on the wall ), choirs singing anything from Blowin' in the Wind to Make you Feel My Love , Italian rock bands performing Blind Willie McTell,jugbands with their loving take on Red River Shore and, yes, thousands of others from Japan to Norway.

CITH is a loving tribute to the timelessness of music and song, and also a timely reminder of his gifts as a musician.

Some of my favourite all time Dylan performances are songs by other songwriters which he has transformed from fair to great by the subtlety of his singing and the intensity of his performance.

Dylan will continue to do what he wants...sorry, he always has and ,I hope, always will.

Happy New Year to all.

Paul.

3:56 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As this conversation has veered towards musical giants like Cole Porter, I'd like to see/hear Dylan come up with something as good or challenging as the songs in 'Kiss Me Kate' or 'High Society' instead of recyling the Never Ending Tour.

Meantime, I can recommend the bio of Cole Porter by Charles Schwartz (De Capo Press-New York) if you can find a copy.

Happy New Year! Brian O'Connell

2:44 pm  
Blogger Michael Gray said...

And I'd like to hear of any good Dylan song that has ever approached Cole Porter's couplet "Use your mentality, wake up to reality" for sheer awfulness.

7:42 pm  
Blogger Frank said...

Following Brian O'Connell's comment, I see that the Porter biography is available from Amazon UK. Interestingly, Amazon tell us that "Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought 'Christmas in the Heart'"! Kerazee!

As to Michael's challenge, and given Dylan's fondness for rhyming, I think there will be quite a few posts in response...

7:48 pm  
Anonymous Kieran said...

In fairness, Michael, I've Got You Under My Skin is a great song. Like the well known product, it does exactly what it says on the tin.

There's no fixed canon on what people think are good Dylan songs, but he lapses into easy cliche and rhyme quite effectively too, when it suits his book.

By the way, it's not an either/or proposition when it comes to Dylan and the great Hollywood composers, as we can see from his own evident admiration of their songs. Now, I'm just gonna put on My Fair Lady and watch it with the missus, so a bit of respect, please! :)

8:01 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Brian

Are you suggesting that Dylan is'nt a musical giant?

All artists re-cycle ( the Philadelphia Story comes to mind ).

Dylan is a singer/performer/writer rather than a composer.

I would argue that Dylan lives to perform ....rather than write songs.

In my view, Dylan has produced more great albums than say Leonard Cohen or Bruce Springsteen have produced albums.

I believe that a performer/writer has a different perspective than a composer and also has a spiritual relationship with song that a composer can never have.

Dylan has said many times that his songs only really exist for him when he performs them ( " no one can breathe like me" ).

Again, the internet demonstrates the power of his songs ( check out the young men and women from all countries/cultures that sing his songs as though they were written yesterday ) and the official Dylan covers keep coming within different musical genres.

Cliche or not, his work from the 1960's, when like I said he was just a kid, confirms his status as the greatest songwriter ever.

Paul.

9:47 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

That's easy Michael: Here's a couple-

'Winterlude, this dude thinks you're grand'
'If dogs run free, why not me, across the swamp of time?'

9:57 pm  
Blogger Michael Gray said...

No: the first line you quote won't do at all as a parallel example. The internal rhyme of "-lude" and "dude" is intentionally funny, and its quiet, modest playfulness fits neatly with the fond parodying the song offers. You only need listen to the immaculately delivered warmth of Dylan's vocal to feel all this.

'If Dogs Run Free' is, I think, less of a success (though more ambitious), yet surely its point is also some fond parody. I'll concede that only parody can justify that swamp of time.

Yet even if that were just an ill-judged poetic phrase, it wouldn't clunk like "use your mentality", which purports to be informal self-rebuking chat and jarringly isn't. No-one has ever said that phrase - it's simply phony, and clangs out of this smug smoothiness like a tin bucket falling on a Ford Cortina.

11:26 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You're right, Michael. The rhyme is a clunker. Just try saying the line "use your mentality" in a normal spoken voice. But as long as a song swung and he liked it, Sinatra was as good as Dylan at finding poetry where it doesn't exist. The way he bites into the word "mentality", and the easy way he couples it with "use" makes the line work in spite of itself.

MZ

1:08 am  
Anonymous Kieran said...

I think these things are difficult to quantify. On H61, for instance, lest God be offended, Bob stitched a single bum verse into a perfect album: the one about the cow and the milk. That got old real fast, eh?

Subterranean Homesick Blues has some slick, easy rhymes. It's brilliant, but it's not necessarily more logical than "use your mentality".

Bob has plenty of nonsense rhymes and although we may say that the point of them is that he *knows* they're lame, and hence the joke, we might also say that he has a love for simple things also, and so The Man in Me has a bridge not unlike On The Street Where You Live, by Lerner & Loew, and Nashville Skyline sparkles all the more because he's kept it simple and sincere, if there ever was such a thing in songs.

I don't believe that Cole Porter - or Rodgers & hammerstein - have written songs as potent or relevant to the human experience as Bob Dylan, but they have written some of the greatest songs in the American songbook, none the less, and they operated under different conditions to the mysterious Bob...

7:56 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This line comes from an American Magazine in 1940:

'For every language that you add to your list, the better will be your mentality'

It could be argued that nobody should use language in this way, but they did..

My guess is Porter was satirising this type of usage of the term..

6:36 am  
Blogger Michael Gray said...

Dear Anonymous
I know you've sent a further three comments to this post, hitting me over the head yet again with your opinions on the wondrousness of the Cole Porters and abusing me for not having changed my mind on this particular topic, but you've already submitted a large number of very similar comments to other posts of mine elsewhere on this blog, and I have published all of them - but enough is enough. I'm tired of being buttonholed about this.

10:48 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Michael

A couple of quick points:

!. Like most other people who read this blog, I believe that Dylan is a superior lyricist to Cole Porter and expresses real human emotions much more directly than does the latter.

2. However, this fact does not blind me to the qualities of craftsmanship, wit & (yes) 'sophistication" that Porter brought to the writing of 'show tunes.'

3. I accept that at times there is a mannered and over 'clever' quality to the lyrics of both Cole Porter and Ira Gershwin. However, I would argue that, at his best, in songs like 'Every Time we say Goodbye'and "Love for Sale' Porter transcended the limitations of the conventions he worked within.

4. My favourite lyricist of the period (and the only one I would allow 'wondrous' to be applied to is Lorenz Hart - because I believe that he brought a genuine melancholy and pathos to the best of his songs - such as "I'll Take Manhattan', "Blue Moon' (which Dylan & Elvis both recorded), 'Falling in Love with Love' and 'My Funy Valentine'.

5. My problem with your approach is not that you dislike any of the individuals written above but the tendency you display to write off entire musical genres, as you do both with 'country' and the Gershwin, Porter etc tradition in 'Song & Dance Man'

6. It seems clear to me that virtually every style of music will have a small number of artists who can be described as great, a number of 'good ones, and a host (usually) of inferior performers who rip off the first 2 groups.

7. In "Country' the first hroup would include people like George Jones, Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson etc and in the tin pan alley tradition I think the Gershwins, Porters, etc would find their place in the same group.

End of Sermon.

4:07 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Michael

a FINAL WORD.

When it comes to music, I have always tried to follow Hazlitt's dictum:

'We are generally right in what we approve ourselves, for liking proceeds from a certain conformity of objects to the taste ; as we are generally wrong in condemning
what others admire, for our dislike mostly proceeds from a want of taste for what pleases them. Our being totally senseless to what excites extreme delight in those who have as good a right to judge as we have, in all human probability, implies a defect of faculty in us rather than a limitation in the resources of nature or art.'

This doesn't always work (as with U@ & Queen), but in the case of Sinatra, Crosby, etc. I find giving them the benefit of the doubt has given me access to some great music over the years.

I dont listen to them all that often, but when I do, can appreciate the artistry and craftsmanship they bring to their work.

9:53 am  
Blogger Michael Gray said...

Promise?

12:22 pm  
Anonymous Peter Stoller said...

Michael Gray writes:

Leiber & Stoller were Tin Pan Alleycats yet wrote powerful material for pre-army Elvis, designed to suit his blues-soaked artistic persona rather than their own taste (which was for the world of Peggy Lee).

Leiber & Stoller were R&B cats who wrote blues-soaked material to suit their own tastes. Their interest in "the world of Peggy Lee" developed years after their association with Elvis had ended. Prior to that, Tin Pan Alley influenced them primarily in terms of craftsmanship, which they applied to the style and structure of the R&B they loved.

10:37 pm  
Anonymous A Friend said...

Michael

What's going on here:

First, we have references to the X-Factor. Pulllease...

Wasn't Bob born to abolish such reprehensible rubbish!!!!

Second, we have favourable reviews of the farcical Christmas in the Heart.

Lay off the moonshine, son...

9:49 am  
Anonymous Elmer Gantry said...

Quote from a Dylan interview in the LA Times:

Dylan has respect for many of the pre-rock songwriters, citing Cole Porter, whom he describes as a "fearless" rhymer, and Porter's "Don't Fence Me In" as a favorite...

Obviously, a man with no taste, eh

5:19 am  

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