...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."and
Dylan...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."Exactly!
Dylan gets this, and that's why Christmas in the Heart is less a joke or a provocation than a polemic.