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20 Classic Songs That Need To Be On Your Thanksgiving Playlist


The world is ready to celebrate Christmas, and will be ready to move beyond it on December 26 when liturgical types like me are just getting started. But it’s not Christmas yet! We need to have Thanksgiving first.

Instead of playing Christmas music for your Thanksgiving feast, consider listening to some Thanksgiving-themed music instead. Yes, there is such a thing. Here’s a suggested playlist to get you started.

First, some traditional selections.

1. ‘Thanksgiving and Forefathers Day’

The Holiday Symphony of Charles Ives is a four-movement orchestral work that highlights the four seasons and four corresponding American holidays. It can be listened to and appreciated in its entirety, but the individual movements can also stand alone. The fourth movement, “Thanksgiving and Forefathers’ Day,” musically depicts the Pilgrims’ journey to the New World and incorporates some traditional hymnody as well as a rousing choral finale.

2. ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’

John Rutter is one of the preeminent twentieth-century composers of sacred choral music. No Thanksgiving list would be complete without his “All Things Bright and Beautiful.”

3. ‘For the Beauty of the Earth’

In the same vein is Rutter’s “For the Beauty of the Earth.”

4. ‘The Eyes of All Wait Upon Thee’

American composer Jean Berger’s “The Eyes of All Wait Upon Thee” begins on a reflective note, modulates through a succession of haunting harmonies, and after building to a powerful climax ends on a glorious, rich, and long-awaited major chord. This performance is by the National Taiwan University Chorus.

5. ‘Give Thanks’

“Give Thanks” by Don Moen has become a contemporary Christian classic. Here it is sung by The Maranatha Singers.

6. ‘He Who Offers Thanksgiving Praises Me’

What would a classical Thanksgiving listening list be without some Bach? The master’s Cantata Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis 17, “He who offers thanksgiving praises me,” begins with a dazzling choral fugue, includes arias on the majesty of creation and the thankful Samaritan leper, and ends with a chorale on Psalm 103:13-16: “As a father shows compassion to his children, so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him. For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust. As for man, his days are like grass; he flourishes like a flower of the field; for the wind passes over it, and is gone, and its place knows it no more.”

7. ‘I’ve Got Plenty to Be Thankful For’

Next, some popular numbers from the American songbook. “I’ve Got Plenty to Be Thankful For” was composed by Irving Berlin and sung by Bing Crosby in the movie “Holiday Inn.” When Crosby’s character sings it in the movie, he is at a low point in life and not feeling particularly thankful. But the song is a good reminder that even when you don’t have a yacht, fancy car, gourmet food, or even indoor carpeting, it’s the “little” things like life and love that really matter.

8. ‘Sweet Potato Pie’

Speaking of love, grab your honey and sing along with James Taylor’s “Sweet Potato Pie.” If you don’t have a honey, a piece of pie will do. “Oh Lord I feel fine today, I’m walking on cloud nine today. . . . And I’m prepared to tell you why. It’s strictly on account of my sweet potato pie.”

9. ‘What a Wonderful World’

For pure, unadulterated joy, we can’t forget Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World.” This recording includes a spoken introduction by Armstrong that is applicable to all times and places.

10. ‘Home for the Holidays’

The Carpenters, “Home for the Holidays.” Enough said.

11. ‘Thanksgiving Prayer’

In 1994 Johnny Cash appeared with his wife June Carter Cash on an episode of the television show “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman.” Here he sings her a touching “Thanksgiving Prayer.”

12. ‘Thanksgiving Song’

Enjoy the simplicity of Mary Chapin Carpenter’s “Thanksgiving Song.”

13. ‘Why Me, Lord?”

Kris Kristofferson’s “Why Me, Lord?” was prompted by a spiritual awakening he underwent during a church service in the early 1970s. Its plaintive and awestruck humility is perfectly suited to the message of Thanksgiving.

14. ‘Over the River and Through the Woods’

Perhaps the best-known Thanksgiving song of all time is “Over the River and Through the Woods.” The words are from a poem by Lydia Maria Child entitled “The New-England Boy’s Song About Thanksgiving Day.” Child was a nineteenth-century American writer, abolitionist, and advocate for Native-American and women’s rights. Here is her famous poem sung by Danny Kaye and the Andrews Sisters (and if you’re desperate for a little Christmas, you can get it here).

15. ‘We Gather Together’

Finally, the meat and potatoes—um, make that turkey and dressing—of Thanksgiving music: hymns. “We Gather Together.” Sung here by the a cappella Christian group Glad.

16. Come Thou Fount of Ev’ry Blessing’

“Come Thou Fount of Ev’ry Blessing.” An intimate setting by Chris Rice.

17. ‘Come Ye Thankful People, Come’

“Come Ye Thankful People, Come.” Raise the song of harvest home!

18. ‘Now Thank We All Our God’

“Now Thank We All Our God” for organ.

19. ‘Now Thank We All Our God’ II

“Now Thank We All Our God” for voices, arranged by John Rutter.

20. ‘Sing to the Lord of the Harvest’

“Sing to the Lord of Harvest.” Sung by The Schola Cantorum of St. Peter’s in the Loop.

Okay, so all of the selections on this list aren’t technically about Thanksgiving. They nonetheless all capture something about the spirit of Thanksgiving: joy, time with loved ones, and most important, thankfulness.

The American Thanksgiving, first celebrated by the Pilgrims in 1621 and made a national holiday by President Lincoln in 1863, is intended to highlight the blessings we enjoy as citizens of the United States. Too often our observance of Thanksgiving tends to ignore not only its specific purpose but the opportunity it presents to engage in a true spirit of thankfulness.

This year, before carving your Thanksgiving turkey, sitting down for some football, or heading out for the Black Friday sales, take a few moments to focus on what the holiday is all about and to express appreciation in word, prayer, and song for all the ways you have been blessed by a gracious God. A joyful Thanksgiving to you and yours!