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Bob-Bob-Bobbin’ Along: A Peek Inside Bob Dylan’s Christmas Album

As some of you might have noticed, Christmas is upon us once more. And as everyone agrees, there’s nothing says “Festive” quite like Bob Dylan’s 2009 Christmas LP, Christmas in the Heart. To get into the spirit of the season, then, we thought we’d bring you this interview with one of the key players on the record, Los Lobos mainstay David Hidalgo, who spoke to the writer Damien Love back in 2009 about his experience working on the album…

When word began to spread back in August 2009 that Bob Dylan had recorded a Christmas album, it’s fair to say that – once people realised it wasn’t some elaborate internet hoax – the news was met with widespread surprise. As it turns out, though, no one was more surprised than some of the musicians who actually found themselves playing on it.

Among them was Los Lobos’ great, softly-spoken frontman and multi-instrumentalist David Hidalgo, who’d already worked on the first Dylan album of 2009, Together Through Life. On that earlier record, Hidalgo’s accordion fit in so perfectly with Dylan’s scheme it was only natural that he was invited to play again on the follow-up. But when I ask him whether, when he got the call, he was surprised to learn Dylan was planning a Christmas record, Hidalgo pauses, as though still trying to figure out just what happened back there….

DAVID HIDALGO: …Yeah…Well…See…I didn’t know that’s what he was doing.

What, you didn’t know you were going to be working on a Christmas record?
DH: No. I just got this call to say Bob was going to work for a couple of weeks, and if was I available could I come down. And so I said, “Yeah, sure.” And, so, you know, I had played a lot of accordion on the previous album, Together Through Life, so I tuned up my accordions and took them all down. And I think it wound up that I played them only on one song this time! It was a complete different idea. When I found out it was a Christmas record was actually the first day in the studio: we go in, and we’re going to do “Silver Bells,” you know, an old standard, a Christmas song. And I just thought…wow. I said to Bob, “Is this a Christmas record?” And he said, “Yeah, I think so…” He wasn’t quite sure yet either!

Part of Dylan’s method on some of these recent records has been sometimes using old recordings as a starting point. So, like, Together Through Life has a lot of that Chess blues sound..
DH: Right. Together Through Life, we listened to some old records sometimes for references. Different things, everything from Muddy Waters to Bing Crosby, just a lot of different things. More or less just to convey a kind of feeling, a kind of vibe he wanted. And we’d just take it from there. Everything was live. For the most part, it was just one mic in the room. We went in not knowing what he had in mind, and he started explaining what he wanted to do. And we’d just start from a loose framework of a song, we’d start playing, and we’d just goof around with it for a while until it started to sound like something – and usually, that would be the take that he would like, it was usually the first or second take that he would keep. Depending on the song. Sometimes we worked on them a little longer, but most of them were first, second take…And if he didn’t say anything, we knew he was happy with the take.

So, did he play many old Christmas records for reference like that while you were making Christmas in the Heart?
DH: Yeah, we would do that, too. We’d listen to – I mean, these songs, you know, they’ve been around forever and everybody knows them. And you have to be reverent, and you have to do them justice in a way. So, before we did “Silver Bells,” that first day, I think we listened to Bing Crosby and Dean Martin doing it. We’d listen to, say, “The Christmas Song.” We’d listen to Nat King Cole’s version, and we’d listen to Mel Tormé’s version, and it would be like: Well, we can’t do that ­– but we’ll do something that works, we’ll make it our own. You know: to try and one-up Nat Cole isn’t going to happen. So we’d come up with a different arrangement…Other songs, we’d listen to Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra doing the same song, Burl Ives doing the same song, we’d listen to The Louvin Brothers doing that same song, and just kind of pick a direction, you know, take elements from each one, and just kind of try and find something, until Bob felt the band had a feel for it. If we started playing and it wasn’t happening, we’d go back and rethink things. There were a few times we’d do a song and Bob would take it home and listen to it overnight, and next day he’d come back: “Let’s try that again. We’ll do a different take on it.” It was wide open the way he works.

By and large, he plays quite faithful by these songs.
DH: Yeah,  this album – you know, he didn’t try to rock the stuff up, or change it. He didn’t try to make it sound like a Cajun version or something, you know. It wasn’t that kind of thing, it wasn’t like a jazz Christmas record, you know. It was real traditional. We played pretty straight arrangements, we did a lot of twin fiddles, [regular Dylan touring band member] Donnie Herron played violin, I played viola and we’d improvise parts. We’d come up with some things, and then Bob would say, “let’s try something like this…” and we’d go around that, and then he’d let us solo for a while and we’d improvise, and if it was working, we’d just go to the end. And that was it. It was a cool experience. And he brought in the singers, too, the background singers [The Ditty Bops] and that really added something else to it. It was in the same studio as the previous record, Jackson Browne’s place in Santa Monica.

And I think you were recording this in the early summer. So, summer in California – did you do anything to get into a Christmassy mood? I mean, were there any decorations hung?
DH: No, we’d just play. We just started playing, and it was kind of strange at first. I was, like, “Wow – this is crazy!” Bob was kind of laughing, like, you know, “I can’t believe I’m doing this.” But he’d done a lot of research before this, I mean, he’d listened to hundreds and hundreds of Christmas songs before we even knew what he was going to do. And, you know, once we started, we got into it, and it was, like, “…Well, alright, man.” And it’s funny – after you start listening to Christmas music, you just start to get into the feel of it, you know? You start thinking, like…bells, and about all the Christmas colours and just whatever it is you think about, about that time of year. You kind of naturally adjust into the Christmas mode. And to see it begin to materialise, too, you’re like, “Wow, man. This is alright!” It was really cool.

Bob Dylan and friend

There’s more from Damien Love at his website. Christmas in the Heart is available from all the places that sell the good records , and is A Good Thing: all Dylan’s royalties from sales of the album are being donated in perpetuity to homeless charities around the world. (UK sales benefit Crisis, US sales go toward Feeding America, and the World Food Programme benefits elsewhere.)