When I was kindly approached to contribute to A Very Sufjan Christmas, the song that immediately came to mind was, in fact, not a Christmas song. The seventh and ultimate track on Sufjan’s Noel: Songs For Christmas - Vol. 1 (2001), “Amazing Grace” has that ever-so-rare quality: every single time that I hear it, I immediately stop what I’m doing, raise the volume, and listen. Is there a name for that sensation? There probably is in German… Shuttupannleestentoit? However you label the unique phenomenon, any artist would consider themselves lucky to curate this feeling with a song just once; it speaks to his singular talent that Sufjan has performed dozens of songs that evoke the same response. Like many of the songs on his Christmas album, Sufjan did not actually compose this song, which raises the question: where did this universally recognizable tune come from? Actually, this simple song has deep roots, with origins older than the USA itself.
Originally penned as a hymn by John Newton in 1779, the song tells the story of the priests’ early days as a slave trader. Yes, this spiritual tear-jerker that’s been used as a rallying call for crying puppies and bearded old guys pleading for pennies was first written by an 18th-century slave trader - one who was described by his captain as the most profane sailor with whom he’d ever set sail. After Newton had a near-death experience in a terrible storm that smashed up his ship off the coast of Ireland, he promptly excused himself from seafaring and found God, joining the Church of England. As a reformed man and a priest in England, it was this nearly fatal storm that inspired Newton to write his hymn, praising the divine grace through which he believed himself saved - both literally and spiritually. It would become the spiritual song we know today when it was set to the tune of “New Britain” by William Walker in 1835. Now, it is performed an estimated 10 million times annually and is one of the most recognizable songs in the English language.
So, what is it about Sufjan’s performance of this song that makes it 1 in 10 million? And why, for Santa’s sake, is this 250-year-old hymn on an X-mas album?
To Sufjan, the creation of music is the purest form of gift giving - a concept that he ties as closely to God as it is commonly tied to the holidays. In a blog post discussing Lewis Hyde’s The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property, Sufjan weighs the difference between selling and giving, as it pertains to his faith and his art. Diving into his religious beliefs, Sufjan considers the ceremony of the Eucharist - in which Jesus gives his very flesh and blood to his followers - to be a Grace “spiritual made corporeal.” Similarly, he contemplates the gift of romance and eroticism, writing: “To make art is to make love.” Like God, we give our bodies to our partners, and it is also in this manner that we give our art to the world. To Sufjan, creating art is like creating life: a gift given for the very preservation of humanity.
All these gifts - religious, romantic, or artistic - must be something freely given, because to demand reciprocity would be to demean generosity. In his blog, Sufjan concludes, in words too sweet to paraphrase: “perfect art, as a perfect gift (without ulterior motive, without gain, without compensation) courageously gives itself over to the world asking nothing in return. Do I engage with my work as a father cultivates his child, with loving-kindness, with fierce enrichment, with awe and wonder, with unconditional love, with absolute sacrifice? I make this my impossible objective.”
No, “Amazing Grace” is not a song about Christmas. But it is a song about divine charity, about giving sight to the blind, relief to those afraid, and a return to home for those who are lost. These concepts purely embody the holiday spirit of generosity and, to Sufjan, the very nature of music itself. And, like all of his music, this song is a “perfect gift,” and the rare accomplishment of his impossible objective: a beautiful, unconditional gift from him and his friends to the listener. And for that, we are grateful.
Eddie Brown has never written for any publication, and assumes that after reading his piece that you can now understand why. He loves Christmas almost as much as he loves blathering on about music. He is also very grateful to the organizers of this project for the opportunity to write about one of his favorite pieces of music as performed by one of his favorite artists. Happy Holidays!