Last year, I started listening to Christmas music the day after Halloween. Truth be told, I received some rightly deserved criticism for slighting Thanksgiving in such a fashion. In my defense, there is not much music about Thanksgiving in an outright way like there is about Christmas. So, this year, I took on a challenge to find the music of Thanksgiving, and, in the process, find the Spirit of Thanksgiving, which I expected to be every bit as vital and life-affirming as the Spirit of Christmas, which I have grown to love over the years.
My journey started with Johnny Cash. He has two songs about Thanksgiving, and both brought warmth to my heart and tears to my eyes. Johnny Cash knew what it was like to be a tree shorn of its leaves, to not have much, but to be thankful for what it still had… to be thankful for intangible, spiritual things such as love and hope and peace.
There were the novelty songs about Thanksgiving, sure, just like Christmas, but not in as great a number. Thanksgiving is not a worldwide holiday. It is a holiday of the United States of America when we observe it in November. No one else is a co-celebrant with our nation on our day of Thanksgiving. It is a holiday of North America, with its climatologic particulars that bring a grey, drear weather to much of the nation for much of the month as the leaves fall to the ground after the brilliant, fiery beauty of October that is the equal of April’s grand blossoming. The harvest is in: there is no more planting or growing until springtime. Winter comes soon, and we must pass through its trials if we are to survive. The Pilgrims of old chose this time of year to offer thanks for their survival thus far and to look forward to their anticipated future in their New World, where, more than anywhere else they had been, they felt as if they were in God’s hands.
Eventually, I arrived upon this song: David Johansen singing “A Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief”
It’s my favorite rendition of the hymn/folk tune, however you want to see it. It is what Thanksgiving means to me: the sound stripped-down like the trees, leaving one with little to cover the truth beneath. The reflection on life’s essentials goes well with the coming starkness of the season. It provides fuel for the coming winter, a reminder that the light will come again to our lives.
I’ve discovered that often, autumn songs are used to sing about loss, breakups, or other misfortunes. But they can also be about digging deep into the soul to find that inner strength to carry on, knowing that things must yet still get worse before they can get better. They can be songs about brave dignity, simple victories, and lingering hopes that will one day bear fruit.
After all, the trees lose their leaves, but they are not dead. The animals burrow in the ground to hibernate, but they are not dead. The land and air turn colder and whiter, but they are not dead. Life goes on. Life perseveres. But, in order to do so, life must shed nearly all of its summer glory and return to its fundamentals.
What are we truly thankful for at Thanksgiving? A roof above our heads. Heat in the home. Food on the table. Family gathered together. We are thankful for a catalog of the essentials. Music that is bereft of ornamentation, with an honest voice and quiet accompaniment, that to me is a pure expression of the spirit of our American Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving is a time to look upon our essentials and to give thanks for their presence and for our own endurance.
Even if those essentials are present in our lives in a diminished capacity, they still remain. There is a way to be thankful, even if those essentials are all but eliminated in our lives. The fact that they are not totally gone means that we are not totally gone. The fact that they are not totally gone means that, though a rough and cruel winter may lie ahead, we will survive it, even barely survive it, but we survive it to find the springtime on the other side.
And that is what I hear in this song. I hear the Spirit of Thanksgiving.