For the holiday without a theme song, this list reflects the mood of autumn, familial interactions around the table, and the desire for full bellies and a thankful heart.
By Tim Moffatt November 23, 2022 at 04:11 PM EST
Most major holidays have a theme song, with many from different eras (looking at you, Christmas). The fact that Mariah Carey defrosts each Nov. 1, beginning the warm-up to her end-of-year crescendo of Christmas tunes, illustrates the point succinctly. Halloween, Valentine's Day, the Fourth of July, every one might take about 3 seconds to rummage through a cerebral rolodex of songs to find one that fits — yet Thanksgiving has next to nothing. There is no "Deck the Halls" for Turkey Day,no Monster Mash to mash potatoes to, no equivalent of Minnie Riperton serenading "Lovin' You" when prepping the stuffing.
Many have tried their hand at writing a song that ushers in the autumnal spirit that gives way to Thanksgiving. The time between Halloween and Christmas, when the world is beginning to get a little more still, is also a time for reflection. Hence, some of these songs are about looking back on the year, some are about family celebration, and some are about reconciling with the past. So, without further ado, here's EW's list of songs that should be in the running for unofficial Thanksgiving themes, or at least, on your Thanksgiving playlist.
"Bridge Over Troubled Water" (1974) by Simon & Garfunkel
Fall just feels like the perfect time to listen to Simon & Garfunkel, what with their thoughtful, measured music ripe and acoustic ballads light as an autumn breeze.. But out of the duo's vast and respected discography, "Bridge Over Troubled Water" is their most Thanksgiving-adjacent song for its delicate message, reminding us that hard times don't last and that those who love you most will rally around you in need ("Like a bridge over troubled water / I will ease your mind"). And with that support, this song shows us that there is always something to be thankful for, even when it doesn't seem like it.
"Father and Son" (1970) by Yusuf / Cat Stevens
"Father and Son" is about growing up, getting older, and trying to pass along valuable knowledge and reassurance to your child as they do the same. One perspective is feeling doubtful of their position in life; another is handing out seasoned life advice.
Cat Stevens sings both roles here in a calming call and response, with the son in a higher, more inquisitive register ("How can I try to explain? When I do he turns away again"), while the father is steadfast and secure, with years to back up his conclusions ("I am old, but I'm happy / I was once like you are now"). Both positions are important aspects of learned maturity and reflective self-discovery, as the song mimics a conversation that could (or, rather, should) be had during the holidays.
There is no better time for reflection than when surrounded by family trying to relate to your strife, or at least attempt to understand it. As Stevens told EW, "The song is an ever-living testament to the differences that we represent to each other, especially in terms of age with fathers and sons, and also with traditions."
"Time In A Bottle" (1973) by Jim Croce
One more introspective tune about love and the inevitable passing of time, "Time In A Bottle," written by the incredible Jim Croce upon learning his wife was pregnant, is also about the love from a father to his son, and its gentle musings between finger plucks fit in well with the theme of gentle autumnal feelings. Thanksgiving just feels like it should have a folk soundtrack in some respects, and Jim Croce is the answer to that supposition.
Adding further to its emotional pathos is the sad truth that after Croce died tragically in a 1973 plane crash, "Time In A Bottle" was on loop on the airwaves everywhere, singing beyond the grave "If I could save time in a bottle / The first thing that I'd like to do / Is to save every day till eternity passes away / Just to spend them with you." And with the holidays bringing families together, this song seems like the perfect anthems for those precious fleeting moments with those you love most.
"We Are Family" (1979) by Sister Sledge
One of the best parts of family is the party aspect, and Sister Sledge represents the fun of familial fraternity with groovy assurance in the ubiquitous R&B anthem "We Are Family." This classic ditty reflects a holiday when booze flows freely, loud chatter encompasses the dining table, and the reigning vibe is that everyone in this room is beyond happy to be with the people they love most.
While that isn't always their experience upon returning home for many, for those who've learned firsthand that good relationships are what the holidays are all about, well, they have a lot to be thankful for.
"We Can Work It Out" (1970) by Stevie Wonder
Though the Beatles' original 1965 single is hard to beat, there's just something extra jovial about Stevie Wonder's raucous, soul-infused cover from five years later. The message of tying loose ends and mending relationships remains ("Life is very short, and there's no time / For fussing and fighting, my friend"), but Stevie's signature smoothness does all the convincing and more.
So, though disagreements are inevitable (especially around the holidays, hello), Thanksgiving is a time for finding common ground — even when your uncle says dumb things at the dinner table. Sit back, be the bigger person, and let Stevie Wonder help you work it out.
"Take Five" (1959) by Dave Brubeck
Black coffee, cool weather, and the vibe that everything might just turn out okay. That's what Dave Brubeck's "Take Five" evokes, being the ultimate soundtrack for sitting in front of a fire while filled with plenty of post-feast tryptophan. Jazz is best in the colder months because of its often moody style; It's angular and emotive, and there's a reason this little ditty is one of the more iconic highlights genre fans still spin to this day.
"Love the One You're With" (1971) by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young
Okay, you've made it to the big day. You're sandwiched between family members at the table, your uncle has already started saying weird things, and you're already losing sight of the holiday's point. Swallow your words, sit back, and recite this song's mantra in your head: "Love the one you're with, love the one you're with, love the one you're with…" over and over in ad infinitum or until it sinks in.
Sure, this smooth rock hit isn't exactly about family, but it applies in this situation, and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young have a soothing effect. So, dig in, eat away your annoyances, and let the folkish flair inspire a change of heart.
"Green Onions" (1962) by Booker T. & the M.G.'s
Back to the party songs, "Green Onions"is the pre-game anthem while the food is cooking and we're waiting for everyone to show up. This song and a glass of wine are the perfect antidote to the anticipation of a hectic holiday. Sure, the whole shindig could go down like a fiery zeppelin, but until that happens, we're all cool like Fonzie and floating through the afternoon on a slight end-of-year high. So let loose and give Booker T. and the M.G.'s the reins for a bit.
"Fried Neck Bones and Some Home Fries" (1966) by Willie Bobo
The placement of this song directly below Booker T. and the M.G.'s is purposeful. Let one cool tune segue into another and keep the good vibe moving! Between the percussive ball change beat, smooth as suede vocals from one Willie Bobo, and hypnotic horn turns, "Fried Neck Bones and Some Home Fries" will make the rest of the evening fly by (and lessen the need for edge-reducing martinis later).
"No More Hot Dogs" (1984) by Hasil Adkins
Here's where the madness sets in…are the potatoes boiling over, is the turkey dry? The inevitable holiday frenzy of course needs a crazed soundtrack, and Hasil Adkins' off the walls psychobilly absolutely fits the bill. So crank the tunes, pop open a bottle of vino, and marinate in the swirling, dervish of chaos. It'll all be over soon, but in the meantime, "No More Hot Dogs" is the song running through your skull like a news ticker while you search for the fire extinguisher.
"Gravy (For My Mashed Potatoes)" (1962) by Dee Dee Sharp
The inclusion of this Dee Dee Sharp classic should be self-explanatory — this is for cooking. Soul music is like seasoning, injecting hours in the kitchen with excitement, joy, and, most of all, love. If you can dance and cook at the same time, "Gravy" guarantees a great Thanksgiving day. That mixture of serotonin release and delicious smells is a recipe for success (especially if you're following Dee Dee's lead and mashing potatoes).
"Stuffy Turkey" (1964) by Thelonious Monk
Following up "Gravy" with "Stuffy Turkey" just makes sense; We built up the playlist with soul, now it's time to bring the party back down with some jazz. This alternating of hot and cold is an ancient remedy for keeping well, and mixing these tracks is like an aural approximation of winter bathing courtesy of Thelonious Monk.
Here, the famed pianist enlists Butch Warren's feel-it-in-your-bones upright bass along with Charlie Rouse's smooth as a scotch nightcap tenor sax. And beneath it all is of course Thelonious tickling the ivories, bringing his composition full circle and the evening to a near close. Also, it's never a bad decision to throw It's Monk Time on the Victrola in its entirety.
"Fists of Curry" (1998) by Dan the Automator
A little something upbeat with no words could very well be the key to keeping the party from tumbling in any major direction. When the talk at the table turns to politics, put on unsung wizard of funk Dan the Automator's "Fists of Curry" at a slightly obnoxious volume and stare at everyone at the table intensely.
The sheer, unrelenting groove may be better suited for an overly saturated, macho, '70s-grit film montage than a dinner setting, but that's precisely why it's the perfect diversion (plus its honorable food mention).
"Grapefruit Moon" (1973) by Tom Waits
Everyone has gone home, the stress is over, the dishes are done. Time for a little more introspection, and what's better for that than Tom Waits? This one is perfect for Thanksgiving, since he already has a song called, "Christmas Card From A Hooker In Minneapolis," so clearly, that holiday is covered.
"Thanksgiving Theme" (1973) by Vince Guaraldi
Yes, there is literally a song called "Thanksgiving Theme" on this list. It's not the Vince Guaraldi song everyone knows by heart (*cough* "Linus and Lucy"), but it is a fine tune from the Peanuts catalog. And between the Great Pumpkin and Charlie Brown Christmas holiday specials, the trio of course had to contribute a festive song for the 1973 Thanksgiving short.
While it's successful at adapting the aura of the day into a fanciful piano tune practically tailored to childhood daydreams, it's not quite as emotionally effective as the other songs in the composer's oeuvre. That said, not including this song would make this list incomplete, as it's an undeniable classic, and the most literal contender on our list of unofficial (or, in this case, official) Thanksgiving themes.
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- By Tim Moffatt