Thanksgiving Songs

Essential folk and Americana tunes for your Thanksgiving playlist

Everyone knows at least a few great traditional (and contemporary) Christmas ​carols. But what of the music of gratitude, thankfulness, and family gathering? That's right, I'm talking about Thanksgiving songs. The world of music isn't quite as replete with Thanksgiving songs, but there are a few worth splicing into your holiday playlist. Check out these seven essential turkey-stuffing songs.

"We Gather Together" (Traditional)

Thanksgiving. photo: Getty

Probably the most widely recognized American folk song about gathering for Thanksgiving, this old hymn actually predates the conventional celebration known as "the first American Thanksgiving". The date of that first holiday is presumed to be around 1621, about thirty years after the poem-turned-song "We Gather Together" was composed. At that, it was written by a Dutch poet, set to the tune of an old Dutch folk song. It wasn't until 1903 - nearly 300 years after the first American Thanksgiving - that the song first appeared in an American hymnal. Since then, however, it's become a standard hymn of Thanksgiving and a traditional part of the holiday.

"Over the River and Through the Woods" (Traditional)

Thanksgiving Turkey
Thanksgiving Turkey. photo: Getty Images

One of the few other traditional Thanksgiving hymns (along with "We Gather Together), "Over the River and Through the Woods" is however much more contemporary. Written in 1844, the poem was published in a book of poems for children, by a poet who was a staunch advocate for slave emancipation. (Though that fact doesn't enter into the song, it is, you must admit, an interesting side fact.) The poem included 12 verses but only one or two verses are known by most folks anymore. (Check out more history and verses of this song.)

"Alice's Restaurant" (Arlo Guthrie)

Arlo Guthrie
Arlo Guthrie. © Adam Hammer, courtesy creative commons

Arlo Guthrie's long, convoluted, complicated tale of Thanksgiving Day at Alice's Restaurant was an ambitious song-story when it was first released in 1967, and it remains as such even today. In fact, the song/monologue told such a captivating tale that it was turned into a movie two years later. The overall story of the song was an anti-war message, focused on dodging the draft and staying out of the conflict altogether. It was based on an actual restaurant run by a woman named Alice, who threw annual Thanksgiving dinners for her patrons. Clocking in at about 18-and-a-half minutes, "Alice's Restaurant" is easily one of the longest, most popular folk songs of the past 50 years.

"The Day Before Thanksgiving" (Darrell Scott)

Darrell Scott
Darrell Scott. © Rodney Bursiel

Not so much hymn as anthem, Darrell Scott's Thanksgiving song is a tribute to the complicated truths of life, building on history's sweeping generalities and inaccuracies, and reconsidering the American dream. Sure, it's a lyrically cynical song which might sit well with folks who feel down during the holidays, but it's also a straight-shooting tale of honesty which foregoes the soft focus of nostalgia and heightened expectations. If you're looking for a Thanksgiving song which nails all the complex emotions intertwined with gratitude, Darrell Scott is your man.

"Thanksgiving" (Loudon Wainwright III)

Loudon Wainwright III
Loudon Wainwright III. photo: Evan Agostini/Getty Images

Written in the form of a prayer one might say at the Thanksgiving table, this song addresses all the awkward and sometimes painful interactions which are inevitable when a family gets together with all its history and baggage and tries to surmount it all to give thanks. Similar to Darrell Scott's tune of the complexities behind gratitude("Let us somehow get through this meal without that bad old feeling"), Wainwright laces his Thanksgiving tune with equal parts humor and cynicism, all told through a haunting melody.

"Thanksgiving Song" (Mary Chapin Carpenter)

Mary Chapin Carpenter
Mary Chapin Carpenter. photo: Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

Mary Chapin Carpenter is known for writing simple, cut-to-the-chase songs about the most important parts of human interaction. Her "Thanksgiving Song" is no exception. It skips the emotion and discomfort and cuts straight to the heart of gratitude - noticing the rare and precious, quiet beauty in a family gathering for a meal.

"Turkey in the Straw" (Traditional)

Thanksgiving Turkey
Thanksgiving Turkey. photo: Getty Images

One of the finest, most popular American fiddle and dance tunes, "Turkey in the Straw" has been expertly performed by everyone from Bill Monroe and Doc Watson (download that version below) to amateur kids just cutting their teeth on the form. It's an instrumental tribute to the bird which is featured on everyone's favorite Thanksgiving dish and thus earns its place among Thanksgiving-appropriate songs.