Thanksgiving music or not

December 1, 2008

Americans celebrate Thanksgiving once a year. It’s a warm and fuzzy time often associated with being with one’s family — biological and not — and for being thankful. Like many other holidays, the origins are fuzzy, but we get the gist.

Being raised a Protestant American, “We Gather Together” meant Thanksgiving. It’s a great hymn. Lovely dissonances that resolve in a kind of Americana way. It was written in mid-17th century and is described as a Netherlands folk song. The harmonization we all know and love was done by an early 20th century chap. It always reminded me of Sibelius’s “Finlandia” from around the same time.

This Thanksgiving I brought out a book of folk songs. I sat at the piano and crashed through them. David, Daniel’s father, sang with with me. Great fun. We realized that young people just don’t know all the folk songs we older types do. We had a blast singing songs we haven’t sung since childhood. Daniel and Josie knew them all and sang along.

Some of these songs are like 20 seconds long. For that reason, there was never a hit single for young people to learn or hear. They would only know the songs if they were to have been sung by their parents, friends, or siblings. Think: “Skip to my Lou” or “Billy Boy” or “Clementine” or “Down in the Valley” … there are skads of them and I know them all! The storage capacity of knowing songs in remarkable, and not just a PhD from Harvard, everyone has their own bank of music memories.

I bring all this up because it seems a nice tradition: to sing these old songs at Thanksgiving. They are easy to sing, people like them, you can harmonize them, play simple guitar or piano or whatever instrument is lying around, and it makes people feel good, especially those singing. (If you really want to know, it increases the amount of oxytocin in your system, a hormone that spikes during orgasm.) Music does that. Clapping together does, as does singing together. Singing is a better high because there are more variants than plain old clapping.

I advocate a return to group singing, group music making: a new 21st century chamber music or parlor music tradition. Add your favorite Beatles, or Kurt Cobain, or Beyonce. Singing does a body good.

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