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Food, family, thanks and Charles Ives

No need to travel over the river and through the woods to get your obligatory Thanksgiving column, my friends; your heaping plateful of turkey is right here. No room for seconds, for which we’re all thankful, I assure you.

There’s scant music for a Thanksgiving mix, barely a handful of tunes even remotely associated with the holiday. In fact, I can think of only three songs directly related to Thanksgiving, only two of which are worth a serious listen. Adam Sandler’s “The Thanksgiving Song,” doesn’t warrant discussion here: The lyrics are infantile (much like Sandler) and his singing is cloying, annoying and mind-destroying. Not that I’d give Sandler the benefit of the doubt — I’d rather inhale a bucket of candied yams than sit through any of his movies. Adam Sandler has all the appeal of a head cold, massive amounts of mucus and the rest.

Much more appealing is Arlo Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree,” an 18-minute plus monologue”telling the story of Guthrie’s arrest — for littering — on a Thanksgiving Day in 1965, a song that became a classic of anti-war protest songs. “Alice’s Restaurant” is a Thanksgiving Day tradition in my household (and really, the only time I listen to the song). But the song is hilarious, almost a Guthrie stand-up routine.

Not associated with Thanksgiving in any way, I usually follow up the song with Jamie Brockett’s “The Legend of the U.S.S. Titanic” only because it is folky, long and very funny (and likewise gets heard but once a year).

It is the last song of the three that is the most powerful in its evocation of the holiday — and, by far, the most beautiful.

The final movement of “A Symphony: New England Holidays” by American composer Charles Ives, “Thanksgiving” captures not only the Puritan roots of the holiday but the sweetness arising from Thanksgiving’s place as a quasi-family reunion, its power residing in the ability to capture the emotional and psychological contradictions of the holiday — why bringing a family together for a feast can be joyous ... or tragic.

Not so much a symphony as a song cycle, the “Holiday Symphony” is probably Ives’s best known work (though, arguably, not his best work); it also shows Ives to be one of the most original and most challenging composers of the 20th century (at least, to my untutored ears). “Thanksgiving” is more conservative than the previous three movements of the symphony, more subdued, less dissonant. While the movement begins ominously, portentously suggesting the anxiety of being thrust into a situation where scabs are torn from old wounds, it eventually softens its tone, taking bits of inspirational and traditional music (Ives quotes liberally from American standards and hymns) in most of his music to weave in moments of joy and tenderness.

Like most music that matters to me, I recall the exact moment when “Thanksgiving” made it into my holiday repertoire. At the time, I was working towards an honors distinction in an undergraduate neuropsychology program, spending several hours every day administering stress hormones in rats and running them through several behavioral tasks. Since research doesn’t take the day off, I was in the lab on Thanksgiving, focused on the task while resentful that I had to be there.

I’d tuned the radio to the local classical music station for background noise, when Ives came on. I stopped everything that I was doing. Sitting down and listening, it occurred to me that it was like nothing I’d heard before. More than that, when the announcer said that the song was “Thanksgiving” from the “Holiday Symphony” by Charles Ives, it was as if the entire piece was perfect for that moment in time.

Those of you who have read this column from time-to-time will know that the ability of music to lock a moment in time is a common theme with me. Indeed, it is how I define most great music. Furthermore, I’ve written about how some music stands outside space and time, actually evokes a moment, through creating a tableau, one that ineffably brings to mind an atmosphere or feeling by its very essence. “Thanksgiving” manages, for me, to accomplish both.

Believe me, it’s probably not a piece you want to slap on to create the festive spirit you need for your Thanksgiving gathering: It’s far too disconcerting and there are moments in the movement that are far too reminiscent of drunk relatives releasing some long-held animus while unfortunate spouses huddle in the kitchen and weep. Nor is it something to play after the wine and tryptophan have kicked in for the inevitable post-gorge nap. You. Do. Not. Want. To go to sleep to it (bad dreams, I assure you).

However, after the guests have retired to their rooms or have driven off into the night, the symphony (or at least that movement) is something I highly recommend for your personal enjoyment, to see how it jibes with the gathering you’ve held, or attended.

As I said, this obligatory holiday column was not meant to build a mix; the options are far too thin to build a cohesive whole for the holiday. If you’ve insistent on creating some kind of themed collection for the party, you’re out of luck. Fix your food and don’t bother with Thanksgiving songs. Be thankful you have just enough time to plug in your shuffle or stack some CDs into the carousel.

However, if you’re driven, Sam and Dave’s “I Thank You” is about as good as it gets, Thanksgiving-wise. It has “Thank” in the title and, while it speaks to gratitude for something bigger than themselves (“You didn’t have to love me, but you did, but you did … and I thank you!”), there’s no mention of turkey or mashed potatoes or the Bears vs. Lions game. And a great companion piece to Sam and Dave would be “As Time Goes By” from Casablanca (with Dooley Wilson singing, as he did in the movie). Although it has nothing to do with Thanksgiving and nominally dealing with thanks, it speaks to memories which is, I think, a huge component of the season.

If indeed, “the fundamental things apply,” Dido’s wonderful one-hit wonder “Thank You” seems to capture the season’s zeitgeist: As things build up and everything appears hopeless, there’s someone to catch us, preparing us for the next time we’re overwhelmed (probably why Eminem sampled it for his scary-stalker cut “Stan”). At the end of the night, if the relatives are being far too judgmental, Sly and the Family Stone’s “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Again)” is a perfect side to let the chinless, soulless examiners of our lives know that we’re snubbing every snippet of gossip they’re holding onto like a slab of gut built with their own indulgence.

Really, that’s all I’ve got. You’re on your own as far as Turkey Day music. I assure you, you can’t go wrong with Arlo Guthrie (and the accompanying Jamie Brockett — it’s a good follow-up, really) as a Thanksgiving tradition. Sam and Dave, Dooley Wilson, Dido and Sly and the Family Stone (maybe toss in Led Zeppelin “Thank You” from II, Ben Folds’ “You to Thank” and Earth, Wind and Fire “Gratitude” (for, um, just something) and maybe you’ll have a mix.

For myself, I’m popping a turkey in the oven, putting on “The Wizard of Oz” and “Singing in the Rain” (a couple of traditions, hereabouts) and during dinner, probably listening to Phoenix, “Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix” (my favorite, recently) while my kids ask, “Do I have to finish the asparagus?” with an eye on the pecan pie and whipped cream.

Then, after they’ve been overwhelmed by tryptophan and too much fun, I’ll put on Charles Ives, pour myself a couple fingers of port and allow the music to transport me because, despite the inevitable battle over asparagus. There’s much to be thankful for and, in this economy, that says so much.

I sincerely hope that you likewise find a reason to be grateful. We’re a close community in Pagosa Country and there’s no reason anyone should go for want. There are many who have plenty and, in my experience, they’re willing to share. All one needs to do is ask.

Ask me, though, and you’ll eventually be subjected to Charles Ives.