Tag Archive | Elijah Wade Smith

The Gift (I Burn for You)

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.

Erin & Josh singing "Boots of Spanish Leather" at Biola

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.

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A modest proposal for Sufjan Stevens regarding the completion of his 50 States Project

Dear Sufjan,

The other day my friend Erin Hennessy saw you on the F train in NYC, but she couldn’t get up the nerve to say anything to you.  That got me thinking of what I would say to you if I ran into you (even though I never would, as I live on the other side of the country).  The first thing that came to mind was to talk to you about your 50 states project, which you began so beautifully with Greetings from Michigan: The Great Lakes State and Illinois/The Avalanche.

Now back in the day (the early two thousands or so), I took your proclamation to make an album (or EP, maybe?) for each one of the 50 states seriously, even though some of my more cynical friends would mock me saying it was impossible for you to do in your lifetime (they would start with some calculations, ask your age, etc. PS We share the same birthday!).  The reason I believed you was because I saw this limitless sort of creative genius in you, and even beyond that, it was as if you were the Emersonian “Poet” for this generation of Americans–seeing and showing us the beauty and agony and the divine in the everyday, transforming the mundane into the sublime, telling us stories full of wonder and longing and brilliant details from towns like Ypsilanti and Holland and Romulus.

You made me suddenly attentive to the people and places of America: you imbued them with a magical luster simply by naming them in the midst of your deeply moving, melancholic, and rich melodies and arrangements, or by inserting them amongst such evocative mystical lines of verse:

When the revenant came down
We couldn’t imagine what it was
In the spirit of three stars
The alien thing that took its form
Then to Lebanon, oh God!
The flashing at night, the sirens grow and grow
(Oh, history involved itself)
Mysterious shade that took its form
(Or what it was!), incarnation, three stars
Delivering signs and dusting from their eyes

-“Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois”

All that to say that I really, really wish the 50 states project would continue–I think it could become one of the national treasures of our country for centuries to come, a Leaves of Grass for the 21st century that American kids would listen to to understand where they’ve come from and what kind of people we are.  I heard at one point that you said the 50 states project was “such a joke,” but I would challenge you in earnest, if only for the sake of those future little kids, to reconsider abandoning this momentous endeavor.

Realizing that it might very well be impossible for you to write and record all of the albums yourself, what if you instead became the director of the project–you have set the standard quite high with your first two albums–and with the profound respect you have from your artistic peers, I honestly believe you could rally together the best artists from each state to collaborate with to make this happen, creating a kind of ark of American culture.

Here are some suggestions to begin with (I admit some may be wishful thinking) & I call on any reader to add to/better the selection of songwriters for any state (I have put brackets around bands with whom I have only a cursory familiarity & some states I have absolutely no idea about):

  • Alabama = The Snake the Cross the Crown
  • Alaska = Portugal The Man
  • Arizona = Calexico
  • Arkansas = ???
  • California = Elijah Wade Smith, Beck, Stephen Malkmus
  • Colorado = DeVotchKa, The Apples in Stereo
  • Connecticut = Rivers Cuomo?
  • Delaware = The Spinto Band
  • Florida = Iron & Wine, Aaron Marsh
  • Georgia = Deerhunter, Of Montreal, Bill Mallonee
  • Hawaii = Mason Jennings
  • Idaho = Built to Spill, Finn Riggins
  • Illinois = Sufjan Stevens
  • Indiana = Mock Orange
  • Iowa = Caleb Engstrom
  • Kansas = Drakkar Sauna, Mates of State, The New Amsterdams, The Appleseed Cast
  • Kentucky = Bonnie “Prince” Billy, My Morning Jacket
  • Louisiana = Jeff Mangum, Mutemath
  • Maine = [Phantom Buffalo]
  • Maryland = John Vanderslice, Wye Oak
  • Massachusetts = Lou Barlow, Winterpills
  • Michigan = Sufjan Stevens
  • Minnesota = Low, Cloud Cult, Lucky Wilbur
  • Mississippi = ???
  • Missouri = [Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin]
  • Montana = Colin Meloy
  • Nebraska = Cursive, Bright Eyes
  • Nevada = The Killers?
  • New Hampshire = [Wild Light]
  • New Jersey = Sufjan Stevens (?), Danielson, Yo La Tango
  • New Mexico = The Shins, Beirut
  • New York = The Magnetic Fields, Sonic Youth, Interpol, The Walkmen
  • North Carolina = The Mountain Goats
  • North Dakota = [The White Foliage]
  • Ohio = Robert Pollard, Over the Rhine, The National, Mark Kozelek
  • Oklahoma = The Flaming Lips, Kings of Leon
  • Oregon = Laura Veirs, M. Ward, Miles Benjamin Anthony Robinson, The Decemberists
  • Pennsylvania = The Innocence Mission, Denison Witmer, Matt Pond PA
  • Rhode Island = The Low Anthem, Death Vessel
  • South Carolina = Band of Horses
  • South Dakota = Haley Bonar
  • Tennessee = Derek Webb
  • Texas = Josh T. Pearson, Ramesh Srivastava (formerly of Voxtrot), The Polyphonic Spree, Okkervil River, Devendra Banhart
  • Utah = [Joshua James]
  • Vermont = Anais Mitchell
  • Virginia = Thao Nguyen, Hush Arbors
  • Washington = David Bazan, Damien Jurado, Jeremy Enigk, Fleet Foxes
  • West Virginia = ???
  • Wisconsin = Bon Iver, Marla Hansen
  • Wyoming = ???

With the deepest respect & admiration,

Greg Stump