Bob Dylan’s Christmas In the Heart, track by track . . .
How’d you like to spend Christmas on Christmas Island? Dylan and his devilishly cute-sounding girl back-up singers make it seem like a swell idea.
In an interview about the album, Dylan said he knew nothing about Christmas Island — not even if it was a real place. It is — that’s a picture of it above. It’s the largest coral island in the world, sits in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and was discovered in 1777 by Captain Cook — on Christmas Eve, natch. It was unpopulated then but now has a few thousand inhabitants and, due to its position relative to an international date line, is the first inhabited place on the globe to ring in the New Year.
The British conducted some of their first nuclear bomb tests there in the late Fifties and early Sixties — radio reports of which may have entered Dylan’s subconscious at the time. Graham Greene mentioned the tests in his novel Our Man In Havana, clearly struck by the irony of such things happening on an island so named.
The song was first recorded by the Andrews Sisters (above) in 1946, reflecting America’s fascination with the Pacific islands in the post-WWII era. After the horrors which unfolded on them in that war, they took on a paradoxical aura of magic, making Hawaiian shirts, exotic tropical drinks and “Tiki” music irresistible. Were they the symbol of an innocent paradise lost in the war, which we wanted to recover? Or did we simply feel a new, proprietary affection for the places where so much American blood was spilled?
All the contradictions were embodied in works like South Pacific, the stage and film musical, and in John Ford’s Donovan’s Reef (where a South Seas Christmas celebration figured prominently in the tale.) Both these works explored the subject of racism, in a setting where the issue was perhaps easier to engage, metaphorically, than on home soil. (Thanks to Paul Zahl for noting the Donovan’s Reef connection.)
Musically, the Tiki style, with its pedal-steel guitar, influenced country-western music (and, as Mary Zahl has reminded me, Dylan’s own Tiki-inflected pastiche, “Beyond the Horizon”). Bing Crosby and Jimmy Buffett, both of whom Dylan admires, recorded covers of “Christmas Island”.
So a lot of cultural lines intersect in this song, as they do in all the songs on Christmas In the Heart, but the best thing about Dylan’s version is that he plays it straight, without “quotes” around the number — it’s not about nostalgia or irony or attitude. It gets to the heart of what made the Tiki style so appealing — a dreamy, lyrical vision of places where love and life are easy, simple, natural . . . places where goodness calmly gets the better of meanness . . . places where all your Christmas dreams come true.
Back to the Christmas In the Heart track list page.