It’s the holiday season, which means Christmas music is blaring from almost everywhere. Because I work from home and have been traveling a lot, I haven’t actually been overwhelmed by it this year, and I have been able to choose what songs I listen to. There are a couple that I genuinely like, but this year there’s one in particular that has struck me as meaningful to my life right now.
The Little Drummer Boy
There are dozens of versions of the old fashioned tune “The Little Drummer Boy“, which follows the fictional tale of a poor kid who has heard about the birth of a king (aka Jesus) and is freaking out about what he can possibly bring to the celebration. He decides to give what he has: the gift of his very best drumming.
It’s one of those overplayed holiday songs that’s easy to overlook. Its innocence and naiveté are a little passé, too; it was originally written in the 1940s and first recorded as a choral arrangement in the 1950s, so this is to be expected. But this year I’ve found it to be an ideal metaphor for what it’s like to live as an artist and truly produce art for art’s sake.
The idea that, as a musician, what you have to give to the world is your music is both simple and inspiring to me.
Sacrificing Your Best
I’m not a Christian anymore (I used to be), but the idea of giving your best gifts — the fattest of your lambs, the first of your harvest, the cream from your milk — to God as an offering still resonates with me. You honor your maker by offering him your very best, even if you don’t understand why. But if you do this, you will prosper, possibly in ways you couldn’t possibly understand (like the afterlife).
If you are not a farmer, or a shepherd, or a Magi, or a money-maker, what offering can you bring to God? What is the best you can sacrifice as an artist?
Your best song, in this instance.
In a non-religious context, this sacrifice to God is a metaphor for the duty you owe to the world for your existence. As an artist, you owe the world your art, whether it is going to be devoured by an invisible deity or not, and whether it could be making you money or not. You have to give your all in the art and put it out into the world, no matter how the world values it. This sacrifice will bring you prosperity, possibly in money, but more likely in joy and even sanity.
Art for Art’s Sake
When I was younger, I considered myself an artist, almost exclusively in the domain of my writing. I wrote fiction, poetry, and prose because I was compelled to do it, and not because I was going to make money off it. I simply felt I had to.
As an adult, my writing has been turned in other directions, usually to make money for others (and in so doing, making money for myself). But this year, I am feeling inspired to return to setting aside the best of my craft to go to the sacrifice of art for art’s sake.
I have several projects in the works around poetry, performance, language, and even the body. I have short stories and a novel swimming around in my brain. I am working on focusing my best time and efforts on those, even though they won’t necessarily mean a return on investment that’s as grand as blogging and copywriting for other clients. (And don’t worry, dear patrons — you’ll still get the quality work you’ve come to expect. There will just be more time and energy put into the art, as well.)
But this is the sacrifice one must make as an artist. I must sacrifice my most valuable time and deepest efforts to the art.
Perhaps the deceptive simplicity of this metaphor of sacrifice and giving your best art in the carol of “The Little Drummer Boy” explains why the tune is so popular: it’s been covered over 220 times by musicians as varied as the Trapp Family Singers, Johnny Cash, Jimi Hendrix, and David Bowie, just to name a few.
My favorite version (this year) is by a Christian hair band from the 1980s called Whiteheart. I think their version captures the epic feeling of giving your best to the deity you worship, even if you don’t understand fully why or how you’re doing it.
Merry Christmas, and here’s to the sacrifice of pure art this coming year.