Christmas Songbook Day 3: “Must Be Santa” by Bob Dylan

Sometimes the #ChristmasSongbook selections will be about personal memories or spiritual reflections. Other times, they will be discussions of the inexplicable weirdness of cultural Christmas artifacts or just a celebration of the silly and fun traditions of the holiday season.

Today is squarely in that second category.

First, the song itself: “Must Be Santa” was originally written and recorded in 1960 and has been a well-known Christmas tune ever since. It’s actually a riff on the classic German-American tune “Schnitzelbank” (which folks of my generation may know better as “The International Friendship Song” thanks to Animaniacs). “Must Be Santa” has been covered multiple times over the last 60 years, but never quite like Bob Dylan did it in 2010 for his album Christmas in the Heart. In this version, you obviously get later-years Dylan who has started sounding more and more like Tom Waits (someone get this man a throat lozenge, please?). The tempo is flying, and it’s clear that the normally laid-back Dylan is barely hanging onto it with white knuckles. It’s a short little ditty (under 3 minutes), and it’s a harmless piece of fluff. If Dylan’s voice doesn’t grate on you too much, it’s not something that would make you turn the radio dial on your family roadtrip; you’d probably just join in on the song.

But this video. Uffda.

I’m simultaneously baffled and entranced by this frenetic visual collage. If you will permit me, I’ll address my main thoughts in a series of bullets.

  • The opening counter is a bit cheeky with its retro look. It sets you up to expect something staid and classic like Andy Williams or Bing Crosby. Not “Twas the Polka Rave before Christmas.”
  • The frame irises in, revealing the accordion player, and we’re off to the races. The iris effect is interesting in retrospect, because it visually indicates this is a performance, a play–it’s hyper-reality.
  • Bobby Dylan is wearing a black smoking jacket and a white top hat, his stringy hair hanging down over his face as he mouths the words while looking somewhat distracted and befuddled. Also, he’s clearly a wizard, because in this video that is shot and edited to look like a long serious of single-takes, he seems to teleport around the house.
  • Now, I think we’d have to classify Bobby the White as a “chaotic-neutral” character in this scene. He doesn’t really help anyone in his vicinity; he just sort of looks around bemusedly and occasionally pulls out booze or a cigar. He also does things like throwing lit matches onto the floor in the middle of the entryway. I mean, we can’t assume this is his house, just because he’s one of the oldest people in the building. It is possible he’s the Gatsby of this particular festive fete, but it’s equally possible he’s the wild card, a renegade guest tagging along with the younger crowd’s party and creating just a little extra trouble as he goes.
  • Of course, another point in the column for our “Dylan is a chaotic wizard” argument is that he is clearly leading the song, providing the “call” for everyone to “answer”–and I do mean everyone. Until one key moment in the video, everyone in the building is singing and/or dancing to his tune. What is this enchantment that Robertus Dylanus is weaving over the house party? To what nefarious ends might such a spell be used?
  • Suddenly, the Christmas enchanter is dancing with ease among the crowd–moving so sprightly, I might add, that I’m half-convinced that he’s not so much teleporting as creating magical doppelgangers that appear throughout the house and can move much more gracefully than he can. Obviously, the doubles are corporeal enough to grab the hands of the other dancers. Oh, this Dylan’s powers are formidable indeed!
  • At around the 1:50 mark, the story of the video shifts abruptly as a man in a black suit is being chased through the second-floor hallway and down the flight of stairs by at least two men. The man in black pushes people out of the way, leaps over tables, scales a bookshelf to use its tchotchkes as defensive projectiles. He runs from room to room, evading his pursuers, swinging on chandeliers, jumping through a picture window, and finally escaping into the night. What is his story? I actually watched the video a few times to see if there is a backstory seeded in the crowd scenes, but I couldn’t find it. Did the man in black kiss someone else’s lady? Did he owe someone money? Was the conflict caused by drink and rowdy jostling in the crowded hallways of the party house? The world may never know. It remains forever a Christmas mystery.
  • The final shot is Dylan the White look in the direction of the escaped party-goer, standing next to the Jolly Old Elf himself in full Coca-Cola glory. They exchange a knowing glance and half-shrug as the frame irises out with the final image being Bobby D, the Puck of the party. He’s obviously not the real Santa, but they seem to know each other. So who is he? An elf? Jack Frost? A less-scary version of Krampus? It’s unclear. What can be clearly ascertained from this video is that Bob Dylan is a chaotic wizard who can mind-control large crowds of people while creating corporeal dopplegangers of himself to do his bidding, so we all should be on our guard. He’s obviously persuaded Santa Claus to join his side, which means no one is safe.

All in all, this song is a goof, and the video is a lark. How can such magical silliness still exist in our all-too-serious world full of pedantic works of art that cannot be released unless they contain Big, Important Ideas?

I dunno. Must be Santa Claus.

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