By Jeremiah Tucker
At my Thanksgiving dinner, we play Christmas music. I’ve never asked why, but I assume it’s because there are not many songs about Thanksgiving.
In fact, there are almost none.
Halloween, Fourth of July and Christmas all have numerous great songs either well-suited or tailored specifically to their celebrations, but Thanksgiving has Adam Sandler’s “The Thanksgiving Song.” And maybe Weird Al Yankovic’s “Eat It,” which captures the practical application of the holiday, if not its spirit.
But doesn’t this give short shrift to Thanksgiving, one of our premier holidays, refined enough neither to require that you attend weeks of pre-parties dressed in dumb sweaters nor stress out about buying the perfect geegaw for grandma, but rather just show up at the scheduled time and cram your cramhole? What more could you want from a national holiday?
Patterson Hood, one of the principal singer-songwriters in the great country-rock band Drive-By Truckers, apparently agrees and wrote “Thanksgiving Filter,” released last year on the Truckers’ album “Go Go Boots.” A soulful, understated tune in the Southern tradition the band typifies, Hood’s observations of Thanksgiving awkwardness, such as “My aunt’s praising Palin and my niece loves Obama / My uncle came to dinner wearing his pajamas,” cut a little too close to home to make it suitable as background music for a meal with the extended family.
So what does that leave us with? Not much.
I noticed online many people recommend Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” as the perfect Thanksgiving song, its message of taking stock of life’s many blessings mirroring the spiritual side of the holiday. And I wouldn’t disagree.
But that leaves so much unaddressed! What about Plymouth Rock, the Mayflower, and the Pilgrims and American Indians? Or how about the sensation of returning home, gorging on turkey or eventually betraying those same American Indians we broke bread with and driving them to the brink of extinction? All rich veins for songwriting.
My first choice for a Thanksgiving standard, as in most things in life, would be the Beach Boys’ “Do You Like Worms? (Roll Plymouth Rock).” A meditation with the only lyrics being “rock rock roll Plymouth Rock roll over” and fake Hawaiian gibberish, the song suggests the sweep of colonization, a point made more explicitly in Brian Wilson’s version of the song released in 2004 that includes more fleshed-out lyrics. But, most importantly, it’s pretty.
Harry Nilsson’s “Ten Little Indians,” the jaunty, percussive lead track from his 1967 “Pandemonium Shadow Show,” follows the structure of the old nursery rhyme with the number of Indians dwindling one by one after succumbing to Biblical vices until there are none. It’s weird but catchy and more upbeat than, say, Neil Young’s “Pocahontas.”
The Byrds’ version of the traditional “I Am a Pilgrim” covers the other side of that first Thanksgiving table, with the narrator announcing over a finger-picked banjo, “I am a pilgrim and a stranger traveling through this wearisome land.”
Simon and Garfunkel’s “Homeward Bound” does a nice job of conveying the poignancy of returning home after being away for a long time while Otis Redding’s “Coming Home” brings a greater urgency to a similar theme.
I would say that “Thank You Friends” by Big Star, the cultishly beloved ’70s rock band, would be a contender. On the surface it’s a simple, melodic paean to the people who’ve helped you along the way, but Alex Chilton’s voice is dripping with contempt and the bit where he thanks all the “ladies and gentlemen who made all this probable” suggests a deep undercurrent of sarcasm. The acoustic demo version that came with the box set “Keep an Eye on the Sky,” however, dials the venom back and is quite lovely.
But my favorite song about giving thanks is “Be Thankful for What You Got,” the 1974 single and only hit by soul singer William Devaughn. Not only is it smooth as all get out and includes a fantastically catchy refrain — ”Diamond in the back, sunroof top / Diggin’ the scene with a gangsta lean / Wooh-ooh-ooh” —but it drops some timeless wisdom.
“You may not have a car at all, but remember brothers and sisters you can still stand tall. Just be thankful for what you’ve got.”
What songs do you think should be Thanksgiving standards?