Bob Dylan’s Christmas In the Heart, track by track . . .

The lyrics of this song usually sound prissy and cute in most interpretations — Dylan somehow invests them with a portentousness verging on menace.  “Do you hear what I hear?” he asks, and he doesn’t want any bullshit from you in response.  “If you don’t hear what I hear,” he seems to imply, “what the fuck is wrong with you?”

This wild divergence from expectation goes right off the rails when Dylan gets to this verse towards the end:

Said the shepherd boy to the mighty king,
     “Do you know what I know,
     “In your palace warm, mighty king?
     “Do you know what I know?
     “A child, a child
     “Shivers in the cold,
      “Let us bring him silver and gold.
     “Let us bring him silver and gold.”

Dylan spits out the phrase “in your palace warm” and the epithet “mighty king” with something thrillingly close to contempt.  This is not an innocent boy reminding his monarch to do good — it’s the least of men speaking truth to power.  The child shivering in the cold is a rebuke to pomp — “let us bring him silver and gold” is not a suggestion but a directive, from a shepherd boy to a king.

And then Dylan shifts gears to sing in the voice of the king, who seems amazed by what has been revealed to him, that a child, sleeping in the night, will “bring us goodness and light”.  At the end of the last repeated line, he hits the word “light” with all he’s got, in a poignant surrender of his impossible responsibilities . . . to a child.

This is interpretive dramatic singing of the highest order, reworking the whole song into a new thing — into the singer’s idea of what it’s all about.  Sinatra couldn’t have pulled this off.  Pavarotti couldn’t have pulled this off.  Dylan couldn’t have pulled this off in the years when he was doing his classic, iconic work.  We’re lucky that he lived long enough to learn how to do it, and that we lived long enough to hear him do it.

Am I exaggerating?  Do you hear what I hear in Dylan’s vocal on this song?  And if you don’t hear what I hear, well . . . what the fuck is wrong with you?

Back to the Christmas In the Heart track list page.