The Magazine

Hark! the Heralded Dylan Sings

Bob Dylan fans are the battered wives of the music industry.

Nov 9, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 08 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
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Many of the notices about Christmas in the Heart have been pussyfooting. We should be clear: The record is not irony, or camp. This is not a case of "It's so bad it's good." Dylan is not Florence Foster Jenkins or Tom Waits. This is a case of "It's so bad I can't believe it." Under no one else's name would a commercial concern like Sony release a product so embarrassing. Yet embarrassing doesn't quite cover it. For a man as self-aware as Bob Dylan, it's--what? The conclusion is unavoidable: He's doing this on purpose. He knows what his record sounds like. It's not a misstep. It's not a gag. It's an affront, a taunt. He's giving us a choice. He's saying, Okay, this is what it's come to: You've got two options. You can cover your ears and go running from the room in horror, or you can call me an enigmatic genius who's daring to plumb heretofore unexplored archetypes of the American imagination. But you can't do both.

Was there any doubt which option his longtime admirers would choose? They're greeting Christmas in the Heart with the usual welcome embrace. (Thank you, sir, may I have another?) Baby boomers no longer having a monopoly over pop music's critical apparatus, there have been unkind reviews, too--jokes along the lines of "Get this man a Mentho-lyptus!" But there's been much more of this: "A true Christmas miracle," said the Washington Post; "a genuine charmer," said the Detroit Free Press. The Palm Beach Post said the new record proved that "Bob Dylan remains as inscrutable as ever." "The case for Dylan goes beyond his music," the Independent said, deftly sidestepping the question of quality altogether. "In his own peculiar, perverse way, he has survived extraordinary pressures to offer a sort of unfolding lesson on how to live a full and fulfilled artistic life."

And the roots theory has been put to excellent use, ho ho ho. "Dylan," said the L.A. Times, "seems to be offering up an astute exploration of the roots of holiday music--Christmas records in particular--in the same way he has returned in various albums over the years to mine pop music's foundation in blues, folk, country and gospel." USA Today said, "His habit of exploring pop's roots resumes." "Throughout his long career," said the London Observer, "Dylan's only constancy has been to his music, to the old, half-forgotten forms and the itinerant player's incessant searching."

Over that long career and all that searching, the Dylan roots theory, trotted out here yet again, has protected Dylan from transgressions even more distasteful than releasing terrible albums. Multiple instances of plagiarism, for example, have been hinted at, then proved, then waved away with lit-crit clichés. When someone is rude enough to point out that Dylan has lifted a few lines from someone else's work or copied a melody that isn't his, the theft is called homage, a borrowing, an element of "cultural collage." It's Inscrutable Bob returning to those roots of his, working within the honorable folk tradition that let one old-tyme warbler pinch freely from another and no hard feelings.

As a pop music reviewer put it in the New York Times a few years ago, by way of exculpation, Dylan "dips into a shared cultural heritage" to write songs that "are like magpies' nests, full of shiny fragments from parts unknown." The problem is, we do know where some of those shiny fragments come from; most recently they've included lines and images taken from a modern Japanese novel and the mawkish poems of a 19th-century Southern versifier with the unlikely name of Henry Timrod. More to the point, in the folk tradition, performers didn't copyright their works. Property rights would have complicated beyond recognition that gentle spirit of communal give-and-take.

Dylan not only copyrights his stuff, he publishes it under the auspices of the particularly ruthless copyright enforcer BMI, and then without apology he cashes the royalty checks from songs that depend on lyrics that aren't his and melodies he didn't write. He must reckon that a shared cultural heritage is all well and good, but a man's got to make a living. To cite the most lucrative instance, Dylan copied the tune of "Blowin' in the Wind" from an old spiritual called "No More Auction Block." So far so normal, as far as the folk tradition goes: Just one troubadour tipping his dusty slouch hat to a forgotten forerunner. But Bob filed ownership rights over the melody, and it has been a favorite of elevator-music programmers for nearly half a century. He has a big house in Malibu to show for it, with ocean views. No telling what the real tunewriter got for thinking it up.

Yet all is forgiven if not forgotten. Is there any length of slack the Dylan die-hards won't cut him? With the big sales and favorable reviews of Christmas in the Heart, we know the answer: Absolutely not. Whenever I hear extravagant praise for Dylan--I wish I had a Free Baconator coupon for every time he's been called the greatest American songwriter--I can't help but think, yow, what would these guys do with a truly great American songwriter? Someone who uses more than five chords and writes tunes that range beyond six steps on the chromatic scale? I like to think that if they ever listened to Ned Rorem or Virgil Thomson, or Cole Porter or Hoagy Carmichael, they would be overwhelmed and delighted by hearing the real thing at last.

But of course they wouldn't be. They have heard "Night and Day." Dylan worship is impervious to evidence. It begins and ends in experience and memory, personal and generational. A few years ago I heard a man in his early eighties who should know better pronounce Duke Ellington the greatest composer of the 20th century. In further conversation it turned out that Ellington's stuff was the soundtrack of his youth, the music that played as he fell in love, learned to dance, left home, went to war, became a man. And he wasn't about to let any of this jibber-jabber about Prokofiev or Stravinsky shake him from his judgment.

Boomers are particularly vulnerable to the same conceit, with an overlay of pompous allusions half-remembered from our American Studies class. We spy, in every cultural event we've witnessed and in every figure we've admired, the greatest, the biggest, the most .  .  . whatever. It looks like sophistication but it's really insouciance. Even as Dylan continues to sneer at them, his boomer admirers will refuse to believe it. They forget that the Poet warned us himself, so many years ago, with such prescience: "Something is happening here, but you don't know what it is, do you Mr. Poet Laureate?"

<ι><π>Andrew Ferguson is a senior editor at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.