Being that this is the time of year when we celebrate the birth of Jesus by giving one another all sorts of things that we don’t really need (check out the Advent Conspiracy for a counter-consumerist idea of Christmas), I thought it right to offer a small gift to you all…in the form of two versions of a song CALLED “The Gift (I Burn for You)” which has something of a fun history behind it.
In December 2007, Sufjan Stevens created what was called “The Great Sufjan Song Xmas Xchange,” which was basically a contest where anyone could submit a Christmas-themed song to Sufjan’s label, Asthmatic Kitty, and there would be a process of judging the songs with the winner being given the rights to a holiday song that Sufjan had composed.
I had written a number of songs in the past (30 or so) and felt like I could possibly come up with something creative enough to submit, and I had a few wonderfully talented friends whom I thought I could bring together to play/sing on the song in order to make it sound much better than I ever could myself. So, I began brainstorming ideas for this submission.
I am embarrassed to admit that I believe it was the movie, The Holiday, with Kate Winslet that actually planted the seed of a song idea in my mind. My wife was watching it and I caught just a glimpse of a scene where the character played by Ms. Winslet was giving a present to a man who was something of an unrequited love (if I’m remembering correctly). I started thinking of how painful it would be to have put a great deal of time and energy into finding a present, which represented the deep affections in one’s own heart, and giving it to a person who could/would not appreciate what it truly meant. So I started thinking of a story that would become the song I submitted.
The melody and structure of the song came to me quite easily, but it is a rather simple composition (verse/pre-chorus/chorus repeated three times with no bridge). I asked one of my RA’s at the time (and a dear friend ever after), Erin Hennessy, to sing the song, as it was written from a female perspective and she has an eminently lovely voice, and I tried to form a one-off band with the ever talented Josh McBride, Jon Crosswhite, Justin Botz, and the one-and-only genius wunderkind, Elijah Wade Smith.
Well, as the deadline approached, my superband did not pan out, but Elijah did record Erin and I playing the song the night before the contest deadline and so we submitted it to Sufjan as “Erin Hennessy & Sgt. Grumbles,” which was my pen name at the time (though due to a technical glitch, it was a mono recording and could only be heard from one side of a stereo system…Randall Wetzig later used some connections to fix this problem for your listening convenience).
Did we win the prize? Nope. Did we win an honorable mention? Nope (though my friend Wesley’s band Boris Smile did!). However, as Sufjan was writing about the over 600 submissions that he received, our song DID get a little shout out in this paragraph:
There were songs with banjos and ukuleles, songs with synthesizer strings, songs with Casio beats, techno beats, beat boxing, sugary shaker sounds and tambourines. There were songs in Latin, songs in Danish, songs in multiple key signatures, songs with vocoders, songs with Rhodes pianos, toy pianos, multiple xylophones, precious songs with Midwestern accents, sardonic songs with English accents, whistling songs, songs with wrapping paper as metaphor for an overbearing lover, songs as advice columns to Santa, as advice columns to ex-lovers, songs with reed organs and mouth organs and pipe organs. Songs with references to Henry James, in-laws, more ex-girlfriends, abstract ambient songs with twinkling bells and silver glitter, no-nonsense songs with the curmudgeon-y sneer of a Grinch, songs about innocence and forgiveness, songs about spite and regret, songs with great big bear hugs and songs with wintry gazes, songs with reminiscent, sentimental choruses, songs with the names of soccer players and American tycoons, songs with sleigh bells and happy rapping, songs with the thumping back beats of reindeer hooves, screaming children, bumbling boo hoos, bah-humbugs, songs with the beating hearts of all mankind. These were the generous songs of many creative voices participating in the convoluted mysteries of the Christmas tube sock! Yes!
So although we did not win the prize, just knowing that Sufjan had listened to a song I had written & upon which I was (weakly) playing guitar made all of the effort worthwhile! (Also, the reference to Henry James in the song is meant to allude to his novella, “The Beast in the Jungle,” which deals with a story of unrequited love.) But the story doesn’t end there…
Last Christmas, I received one of the best Christmas gifts ever, as Josh, Erin and Jon re-arranged and recorded “The Gift” and sent it to me, complete with banjo, sing-along “la-la” parts, and most cleverly, Josh’s voice singing the parts spoken by the man in the song under Erin’s lead vocal. While I’m sure you will enjoy their rendering of this tune, because of the sweet friendship and affection which I hear in every note, I think it is simply one of the most lovely things I’ve ever heard! I’ve included the original version here so you can hear Erin’s beautiful voice more clearly (the new version was recorded via the mic on a laptop) and to see the brilliance of the re-arrangement!
Hope you enjoy this “gift” dear friends and readers…
Download: “The Gift (I Burn for You)”
The Gift (I Burn for You)
It’s dark outside, my hands are cold from pressing against the window pane
And a fire burns as I wait for you as if all my waiting was through.
My gift to you sits next to the tree, boxes in golden paper:
A record player and 40 LP’s—I searched hard for your favorite bands.
I know that this will give me away, but I don’t care at all…
The time has come to open my heart and accept whatever may happen or not.
I burn for you
Like the star shining over the manger
To direct you to
My heart lying quiet
Like Jesus the savior of men.
When you show up and take off your jacket, you’re wearing the sweater I gave to you.
I make myself wait ‘til we’ve finished dinner to show you the present, but then you say
“Did I tell you that my ex-girlfriend’s back in town from Colorado?”
Then you look away, I go make some coffee.
You ask me to borrow some Henry James.
I tell you to take whatever you want and you say that you’ll take it all
And then you ask, “Who’s that present for?” and I say, “It’s for my brother.”
It’s dark inside, my face is warm from shame and from tears and a hope that’s lost.
The fire dies, I cover my eyes but see through my fingers your present there—
Should I give it away? I know it can’t stay, but I spent all my money on it.
I open it up and take out one record—of course, it had to be “Hey Jude.”
I hold it in my hands like it was my life they were singing about…
I kneel by the fire and then throw it in so that no one can ever hear it again.