Allow me to name just a few of the people I want to hear hosting and curating radio shows—former Sex Pistol’s singer John Lydon, former Clash frontman Joe Strummer, former Woody Guthrie impersonator Bob Dylan.…
Luckily for me, this ain’t just fantasy baseball; at various times, and with varying levels of commitment, each of these tastemakers has hosted a program showcasing their own favorite artists. In Dylan’s case, the commitment was pretty substantial. His show, Theme Time Radio Hour, ran for almost three years—once a week from 2006 to 2009—on satellite radio.
Each episode centered on a general theme, hence the title, but the selections were all over the place—more or less what you’d expect from Dylan: an eclectic collection of folk, blues, gospel, soul, country, modern pop, and rock ‘n’ roll mixed with oldtime radio jingles, novelties, and promos, and the host’s oddball commentary and hokey humor. Recorded while Dylan was on the road, then edited together with phony “listener calls” and emails, Theme Time Radio Hour aimed, Dylan said, “to expand the musical taste” of his listeners. That it did, even in its most traditional episode, namely the holiday special on Christmas and New Year’s, or as Dylan calls it, “a Yuletide extravaganza.”
In his 2006 Christmas broadcast, above, Dylan bounces from Bob Seger to the Staples Singers to Lord Nelson, “uncrowned king of Soca,” and Mabel Mafuya, who plays “a Morabi style, sort of like South African ragtime.” The wide variety of well- and lesser-known artists—all playing Christmas music—combined with Dylan’s wry interjections, makes for delightfully weird listening. But when it comes time for his own contribution, he goes for the obvious and recites Clement Clarke Moore’s “’Twas the Night Before Christmas.” You may not have thought much of this the first time you heard it, much less the millionth. But in Dylan’s reading, the stockings sound like they were hung with care in some dim, smoky beatnik coffeehouse and the sugar plums dance to the finger-snapping bop rhythms of jazz poetry while a harpsichord plays “O Tannenbaum” in the background.
It’s a very cool rendition, in other words, of a very corny piece of writing. Throughout the special, Dylan displays a real knack for sussing new sounds and angles from old, tired holiday cliches. His extensive knowledge of holiday tunes may place him in the company of John Waters and the many other “men who love Christmas music” profiled in the new documentary Jingle Bell Rocks! Whether he is a collector or just an avid listener, I do not know, but by the time you’ve finished listening to his 2006 Theme Time Radio Hour Christmas special, you will find your appreciation for the holiday genre thoroughly expanded. See the full playlist here, with occasional annotation from Dylan’s commentary.