Bob Dylan in the cross-hairs – Sean Wilentz and Christopher Ricks take sides – Part 3 Christmas in the Heart

By Stephen Pate – 3rd in a series. Dylan historian Sean Wilentz and Dylan poetry critic Christopher Ricks square off – the historian versus the poetry scholar. They agreed on one thing – Christmas in the Heart. The previous article in the series is If I Were Christian, I Would Be The Bob Dylan Kind.

Bob Dylan’s Christmas in the Heart Is Folk Music

Sean Wilentz – Want me to defend Christmas In the Heart for a sec?

Go out and buy this record. Your $9.99 will go to charity, first number one. I think that’s serious.

I meant that very seriously. It’s going to go to feed hungry people. I said this in this review. I said he’s being the Woody Guthrie song “Pretty Boy Floyd”. Pretty Boy Floyd sticks up banks and gives Christmas dinner to the families on relief.

That’s what Bob Dylan’s doing. He’s giving Christmas dinner to the families on relief, so that’s number one.

The Original Mono Recordings – Special Price US $97.32Can $ 95.98or or £81.43

The music is from the 40s and 50s. It is old Christmas songs. Look, if America’s had a folk music since 1930, or since commercial recording, what is that folk music going to be? It’s going to be Christmas songs.

Everybody knows Christmas songs. People who don’t even know Bob Dylan songs know “White Christmas”.  This is Christmas imperialism. It’s terrible. It’s awful. Christians, Muslims, Jews; we all have to sing “White Christmas”.

Sean Wilentz

Sean Wilentz

He sings those songs, the songs that he was surrounded by as a boy growing up as a Jewish boy growing up in Hibbing. It’s an evocation of the past.

He’s got … what’s the name of the 2-girl group? The Ditty Bops,  the whitest white bread singers you have ever heard, backing him up.

You are instantly taken back to another place, yet beneath it all, there is his music as well. Donnie Herron is there on the pedal and steel; it’s very, very subtle.

He does a polka song, which is to die. He does “Must Be Santa”. In Hibbing in the Midwest generally, in the 40’s and 50’s, polka was a big deal. You heard polka all over the place, with such stars as Whoopee John Wilfahrt. It’s a true name, with an “H” … F-A-R-H-T, and Frank Yancovic, who I think may be related to Weird Al Yancovic.

Must Be Santa” is a song that is a polka song. He uses an arrangement from a contemporary Texas rock polka group (Brave Combo), but again, it brings us back in that time.

He sings it with great joy. It’s a joyous album. If you want to enjoy Christmas, I don’t care what your religion is, or no religion.  I have no religion, but I enjoy that record. I enjoy that sentiment, for the same reason I enjoy reading Dickens on Christmas, for the same reason I enjoy the best of Christmas, is that, and it’s in that record.

Christopher Ricks – It solves the Christmas present problem, and the opposite, because everybody’s giving it to one another. I’ve given one to each of my 7 children. I don’t know that they would all appreciate it equally, but something of that.

It’s not very religious, is it? I think you’re praising it for that, and I think you’re right.

Sean Wilentz – No, no.

Christopher Ricks – I wouldn’t want to push aside the religion. He’s always been a really religious artist, hasn’t he, and those who are not religious, that is religious people have had more problems with him than atheists.

Sean Wilentz – That’s true.

Christopher Ricks – I just regard myself,  in “Who’s Who”, I’m an atheist.

John Silber, the rather controversial former president of my university, wrote me a note just now saying, “Bob Dylan’s brought out Christmas songs. They’re enough to make anyone an atheist.

He did go on to say, “I know beauty is in the ear of the listener, and you probably think it’s the voice of an angel.

Christopher Ricks

Christopher Ricks

The answer is, I do. John Silber used to call him Dylan Thomas all the time, to annoy the hell out of me. He’d say, “Your love of (Dylan Thomas)…” and then he’d correct it and so on.

These aren’t truly religious songs, are they? They are festivity songs. They’re seasonal songs, even “Adeste Fideles.

Tomorrow –  Bob Dylan Plagiarism Controversy Is Silly Bob Dylan The Borrower


Sean Wilentz Bob Dylan in America –

Christopher Ricks Dylan’s Visions of Sin – Amazon.comAmazon.caDylan’s Visions of Sin

Christmas In the

Pretty Boy Floyd” by Woody Guthrie – Ultimate Collection –

Download Bob Dylan

End Note

Sean Wilentz is a noted historian and the author of Bob Dylan in America, the highly regarded book about Bob Dylan’s place in history.

Christopher Ricks wrote the definitive book on Bob Dylan’s lyrics Dylan’s Visions of Sin, one of my favorite books on Bob Dylan. Ricks is also the editor of the art book The Lyrics: Since 1962 containing all Bob Dylan’s lyrics.

The discussion took place at The Philoctetes Center. You can watch the symposium on YouTube although it’s tediously long at 1 hour and 49 minutes.

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