In what will probably become an annual festive tradition as beloved of eating the entire contents of one of those plastic trays full of really salty pretzels while watching that episode of Dad’s Army where they help with the harvest for the two hundredth time, I have asked four of this year’s Best Music Recommender in the World competitors to write about a Christmas song. First up, Daniel Carpenter. Does he, like me, think Dylan’s version of Must Be Santa was the best thing he recorded since Highway 61 Revisited? Read on and find out…
Must be Santa
Must be Santa might be the point at which I lost all hope for Bob Dylan. I think that point happens to more or less everybody, let’s face it, Bob Dylan fans have had to sit through Wiggle Wiggle, a song in which the word ‘wiggle’ appears nearly 60 times, but for me it happened here.
Must be Santa is not technically a terrible song, before Dylan got his hands on it it’s not even that bad of a Christmas song. A sort of call and response track, it has its origins in a German drinking song in which the caller poses a question to which the only answer is “must be Santa.” When you’re in a German beer hall and someone suggests that the only person who could own a beard that’s long and white is Santa then there must be some sense of irony about it.
The song went through several transformations over time, much in the same way the folk songs that Dylan made famous transformed and changed hands. Dylan himself played the original Must be Santa on his ace Theme Time Radio Hour show before covering it himself, and Theme Time Radio Hour was good.
Then he went mad.
Dylan’s version of the song is a polka, one of the only European forms of dance to have survived the 19th Century, heavily implying that it has murdered all other forms of 19th century dance. It has a fictional character called Count Smokula on accordion, a 496 year old vampire musician who has been described as “a sort of Yiddish Dracula, who plays the accordion and exhibits the longest tongue this side of Gene Simmons of KISS.” He no longer drinks blood, but he did compose the official Troma movies theme tune, hosted a talk show on public access, and appeared on an episode of Blind Date.
In the middle of the song, traditionally the singer would list all of Santa’s reindeer. Dylan being Dylan, he decides to do…this:
Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen
Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon
Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen
Carter, Reagan, Bush and Clinton
For a while, writing this, I tried to compose a whole paragraph explaining the decision to include US Presidents amongst the list of reindeer but, honestly, I don’t think there is a reason. Much like this song, it didn’t need to happen.
I haven’t yet gotten to the video.
Set at a house party, Dylan’s band play the song, whilst Dylan himself mingles and calls out his various Santa facts. His delivery of “who laughs this way, ‘ho ho ho’?” is especially droll. Honestly he’d look kind of bored were it not for his costume.
Dylan sort of mumbles his way through the video dressed like a cross between Papa Lazarou and Chop-Top. I suppose it’s meant to evoke a kind of freewheeling carnival atmosphere but it just makes you wonder how many teenagers he’s butchered on the way to the party.
One minute he’s at the top of the stairs, another he’s dancing in a circle with partygoers, but blimey he looks half sinister, half asleep. Everyone else seems to have having fun at least, or at least they’re all singing along following Dylan’s lead. In all honesty, it has the feeling of that episode of Buffy where Dawn traps the Scooby Gang in the house and none of them can ever leave.
About two minutes into the video, a fight breaks out and someone tries to escape the party, throwing glass bottles at guests, threatening them with a fire poker, and eventually jumping through a window to get away.
I identify with him most of all.
The song suggests that the following characteristics belong to Santa and only to Santa: he has a long white beard, he comes around on a special night, he wears boots, has a red suit, a long cap, a big red cherry nose, he “very soon will come our way”, and that’s kind of it. I’m not saying it’s not Santa, but have they really got enough evidence to prove that it is?
Look, everyone has tried to do a Christmas song, and full marks to Bob Dylan for bringing along a weird vampire who plays an accordion, but Must be Santa only makes sense in the context of evidence in a cult suicide. I don’t know whether to feel sorry for Bob Dylan at the moment, I don’t think I do, outside of thinking “I hope he keeps himself warm,” every now and then. But I do find most of his choices over the last decade fairly baffling. Looking back, I’m almost certain that those odd decisions started here.