I just want to say thank you

(This column originally was posted on Nov 24, 2016.  I have modified it slightly by adding a few different Thanksgiving-related songs I’ve discovered since then.)

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Every holiday has its traditions, and Thanksgiving is no exception.  Roast turkey and stuffing.  Cranberry sauce.  Football on TV.  Football in the back yard.  Black Friday strategizing.  Spirited (sometimes contentious) family debates around the table.  Perhaps most important, heartfelt expressions of gratitude.

And there’s one more tradition, at least in my home.  Thanksgiving is the day I find my copy of the Arlo Guthrie album with the 18-minute story-song called “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree,” recorded in 1967.  It’s a partly serious, mostly whimsical telling of a true story that happened “two Thanksgivings ago, two years ago on Thanksgiving” in and

around alices-restaurantStockbridge, Massachusetts.  It involves Guthrie and some friends, especially Alice, who cooked “a Thanksgiving dinner that couldn’t be beat,” a ton of garbage, and a cop named Officer Obie.

Frankly, the rambling piece is only marginally about this holiday, but the hip FM radio stations in most cities would always play it on Thanksgiving morning, and ever since, I make a point of cranking up the volume at my house and singing along when Arlo instructs us to do so.

Other than “Alice’s Restaurant,” though, I’ve noticed that Thanksgiving doesn’t have many songs to commemorate the day, at least not compared to Christmas with its hundreds and hundreds of carols and secular Yuletide music.

But wait.  Hack’s Back Pages has done some digging, and I’ve found a few that fit the bill.  These 15 songs about Thanksgiving aren’t so much about the history of the holiday as they are songs that feature lyrics that focus on thanks or gratitude, and I think we could all do better at showing our appreciation for the blessings in our lives.

I’ve offered a sample of lyrics and a little background trivia behind each tune, and there’s a Spotify setlist at the end so you can listen along.

Here’s hoping you have plenty to be grateful for, and are surrounded by family and/or friends with whom you can share the day.  Peace.

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55dc153b2c6c20e32265ffecadf302551b2e9c64“My Thanksgiving,” Don Henley, 2000

Henley collaborated with former Heartbreakers drummer Stan Lynch to write several songs for his overlooked 2000 album “Inside Job,” including this poignant tune about a man looking back with regret on his years gone by, and the blessings he didn’t appreciate at the time.  But it’s never too late to be grateful:   “And I don’t mind saying that I loved it all, I wallowed in the springtime, now I’m welcoming the fall, for every moment of joy, every hour of fear, for every winding road that brought me here, for every  breath, for every day of living, this is my thanksgiving…”

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“Gratitude,” Earth, Wind & Fire, 1976

With disco music on the rise, Earth, Wind & Fire could seemingly do no wrong in 1975-76, and their mostly-live LP “Gratitude” topped the charts for three weeks, sparked by the #1 single “Sing a Song.”  The Grammy-nominated title track, written by group leader Maurice White, exemplified his focus on positivity and spiritual peace:  “Want to thank you, want to thank you, we just want to give gratitude, got plenty of love we want to give to you with good music, and we’re trying to say that the good Lord’s going to make a way…”

sdity“I Thank You,” Sam and Dave, 1967, and ZZ Top, 1980

“You didn’t have to love me like you did, but you did, and I thank you, you didn’t have to hold me like you did, but you did, and I thank you…”  Isaac “Theme From Shaft” Hayes and David Porter wrote this soul classic in 1968, and Sam & Dave’s recording reached #9 that year.  Texas blues rockers ZZ Top covered it in 1980, and later, Bon Jovi, Bonnie Raitt and Paul Rodgers also recorded cover versions.

brook-benton-thank-you-pretty-baby-vintage-r-b-mercury-sheet-music-and-lyrics_933068“Thank You Pretty Baby,” Brook Benton, 1959, and Nat King Cole, 1964

In the ’50s, Benton was a songwriter for crooners like Nat King Cole until he was persuaded to record his songs himself, thus beginning a solid career as a solo artist, charting a dozen Top Ten hits in the 1959-1962 period, and throughout the ’60s on the R&B chart, culminating in the #4 hit “Rainy Night in Georgia” in 1970.  He and Cole both recorded this song of appreciation for the woman the singer so clearly loves:  “Thank you for your loving ways, thank you because you’ve been so kind, I’m gonna just take my time and thank you honey, because you’re mine, all mine…” 

led-zeppelin-ii-1400175028“Thank You,” Led Zeppelin, 1969

This is one of a half-dozen acoustic-based ballads released by the undisputed kings of hard blues rock.  Carried along mostly by delicate electric and acoustic guitars and subtle organ, the song features a pretty melody sung by Robert Plant, who wrote the lyrics as a loving tribute to his wife:  “And so today, my world it smiles, your hand in mine, we walk the miles, thanks to you it will be done, for you to me are the only one…”

71YGmjVtw0L._SL1500_Kind and Generous,” Natalie Merchant, 1998

The former lead singer of the alternative band 10,000 Maniacs went out on her own in 1995 with “Tiger Lily,” but it was the 1998 follow-up LP, “Ophelia” that was Merchant’s commercial acme, reaching platinum status and peaking at #8 on the US Top Albums chart.  One reason why was “Kind and Generous,” an uncharacteristically happy song (for Merchant) that made it to #3 on the US Adult Top 40# and #18 on the traditional Top 40.  The lyrics are just about bursting with gratitude:  “You’ve been so kind and generous, I don’t know how you keep on giving, for your kindness, I’m in debt to you, for your selflessness, my admiration, and for everything you’ve done, you know I’m bound… I‘m bound to thank you for it…”

r-4456576-1386950644-4182-jpeg“Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin),” Sly and The Family Stone, 1970

“Dance to the music, all night long, everyday people, sing a simple song, mama’s so happy, mama start to cry, papa still singin’, you can make it if you try, ah, I want to thank you for lettin’ me be myself again…”   Sylvester Stewart, known worldwide as Sly Stone, wrote the lyrics to most of the group’s songs, including this one, the third of four #1 singles the pop/funk/soul band charted between 1968 and 1971.  The lyrics offer a virtual word salad of disjointed thoughts and images but keep coming back to the chorus, where he expresses gratitude for being allowed to just “be myself again.”  Translation:  After all the posturing, it’s good to get back to the real person inside.

thank_you_for_being_a_friend_-_andrew_gold“Thank You For Being a Friend,” Andrew Gold, 1978

Most of the instruments you hear behind Linda Ronstadt’s vocals on her mid-’70s hit albums were played by musical virtuoso Andrew Gold, who went solo in 1977 and had a top ten hit with “Lonely Boy.” The next year, “Thank You For Being a Friend” followed as a modest #25 hit, but it’s better known (in a version recorded by Cynthia Fee) as the theme song to the popular sitcom “The Golden Girls” (1985-1992).  In a 2010 appearance by Betty White on “Saturday Night Live,” it was affectionately sung to her by past and present cast members:  “And when we both get older, with walking canes and hair of gray, have no fear, even though it’s hard to hear, I will stand real close and say, ‘Thank you for being a friend’…”

b4f7585036a2a8f80b5dfe1dc1eafbb7“Thank You,” Dido, 2000

British singer-songwriter Florian “Dido” Armstrong exploded out of the box in 1999 with her “No Angel” album, which peaked at #4 in the US and went on to sell an astonishing 22 million copies worldwide.  The #3 hit “Thank You” was spurred on by its use in the TV show “Roswell,” the film “Love Actually” and, most prominently, as an element in Eminem’s huge hit rap song “Stan,” which was on the charts simultaneously with Dido’s single.  Its lyrics show gratitude to her boyfriend for being there when she needed him most:  “Push the door, I’m home at last and I’m soaking through and through, then you handed me a towel, and all I see is you, and even if my house falls down now, I wouldn’t have a clue, because you’re near me, and I want to thank you for giving me the best day of my life, oh just to be with you is having the best day of my life…”

116233675“Thanks,” James Gang, 1970

Joe Walsh was just 22 when he became the guitarist, singer and chief songwriter of Cleveland’s heroes, The James Gang.  Walsh’s songs “Funk #49” and “Walk Away” became national hits, and Walsh himself went on to become a major star in his own right, first as a solo act and then as a member of The Eagles.  On the 1970 album “James Gang Rides Again,” the lyrics to Walsh’s track “Thanks” took a somewhat resigned, matter-of-fact approach to life:  “Thanks to the hand that feeds you, give the dog a bone, thanks to the man that gives you, haven’t got your own, that’s the way the world is, woh-oh…”

r-6223553-1414122226-9323-jpeg“Thank You Friends,” Big Star, 1974

The critically acclaimed but commercially unsuccessful Big Star released three albums in the early ’70s, which eventually received attention in the ’80s when bands like R.E.M. and The Replacements mentioned them as a major influence.  Lead singer Alex Chilton, who had wowed the US when he sang the #1 hit “The Letter” with The Box Tops at age 16, wrote most of their material, including this joyous tribute to good friends:  “Thank you friends, wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for you, I’m so grateful for all the things you helped me do, all the ladies and gentlemen who made this all so probable…”

the-beatles-second-album-cover“Thank You Girl,” The Beatles, 1963

“You’ve been good to me, you made me glad when I was blue, and eternally, I’ll always be in love with you, and all I wanna do is thank you girl, thank you girl, thank you girl for loving me the way that you do, that’s the kind of love that is too good to be true…”   This formulaic early Lennon-McCartney song was written as the follow-up single to their first #1 hit in England, “Please Please Me,” with “From Me to You” slated for the B-side.  In the end, though, “From Me to You” won out, and “Thank You Girl” became the B-side.  In the US, it appeared on the Capitol album “The Beatles’ Second Album” in 1964.  Said Lennon in 1980:  “One of our efforts at writing a single that didn’t work.”  Said McCartney about it in 1989:  “A bit of a hack song, but all good practice.”

thank_you“Thank U,” Alanis Morissette, 1998

Morissette was only 21 when her “Jagged Little Pill” LP spawned four hits and ended up selling 16 million copies in the US alone.  Things had exploded so fast for her, she said, that she needed to take some time off.  “When I did stop, and I was silent, and I breathed, I was just left with an immense sense of gratitude, and inspiration, and bliss, and that’s where the lyrics to ‘Thank U’ came from.”  It reached #1 in her native Canada and #17 here:  “How about me not blaming you for everything, how about me enjoying the moment for once, how about how good it feels to finally forgive you, how about grieving it all one at a time, thank you India, thank you Providence, thank you disillusionment, thank you frailty, thank you consequence, thank you thank you silence…”

5fe9d8e8f08344bb2a2666f05968ec13-640x640x1“Grateful,” Anthony Hamilton, 2016

In this blog, I don’t generally focus on recent songs, but sometimes exceptions are necessary.  The talented R&B composer-singer Anthony Hamilton, widely praised by critics and nominated for multiple industry awards, rose to prominence in 2003 with his album and title song “Coming Where I’m Comin’ From.”  Hamilton has the respect of his musical peers, who have flocked to collaborate with him these past dozen years.  His 2016 release “What I’m Feelin'” includes the heartfelt album track “Grateful,” which is well worth seeking out:  “Here I am, a new man, the best days of my life, and it goes without saying, you’ve turned it all around, introduced me to love, when I had given up, and I’m so grateful for you…  The way you changed my life, I owe it all to you, I found real love in you, all because of you…

r-2883539-1364799570-9512-jpeg“Danke Schoen,” Wayne Newton, 1963

Bert Kaempfert, a German orchestra leader who wrote Nat King Cole’s “L-O-V-E” and Frank Sinatra’s “Strangers in the Night,” also wrote Wayne Newton’s biggest hit, which was supposed to be Bobby Darin’s follow-up to “Mack the Knife” in 1963 until Darin heard Newton sing it and gave it to him.  (Language lesson:  The rough translation of the German “danke schoen” is “thank you kindly.”)  The song got a second life in 1988 when it was featured in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” when Ferris sang it (lip-synching Newton’s recording) from a parade float:  “Thank you for seeing me again, though we go on our separate ways, still the memory stays for always, my heart says danke schoen, danke schoen, my darling…”

 

 

We walked off to look for America

On this long holiday weekend, as we haul out our red, white and blue outfits, raise the flags and bunting, and ooh and ahh over fireworks displays, we’re clearly going to need a patriotic-musicFourth of July soundtrack.  Once again, popular music is ready and waiting with multiple choices.

Elsewhere, no doubt, you’ll be hearing many of the same songs you hear every year on the Fourth of July:   Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA,” Neil Diamond’s “America,” Don McLean’s “American Pie,” John Mellencamp’s “R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.,” Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA,” Grand Funk’s “We’re an American Band,” The Beach Boys’ “Surfin’ U.S.A.,” Tom Petty’s “American Girl,” The Guess Who’s “American Woman,” and, of course, Kate Smith’s “God Bless America.”

american_flag_stratBut here at Hack’s Back Pages, I want to focus instead on some of the lesser known songs out there that pay homage to all things American — our country’s natural beauty, our freedoms and blessings, and our undying hope for better things to come.  We’re far from perfect, that’s for sure, but we keep on trying.

There’s a Spotify playlist at the bottom of this column for you to listen to as you read about these 15 featured tracks, plus another dozen “honorable mentions” to fill out the program for the holiday soundtrack.

A very happy Independence Day to you all!

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3ba436668a90c7520e4ac2d6a85240a0“Real American,” Rick Derringer, 1985

Ricky Zehringer was only 17 when his band, The McCoys, had a #1 hit with “Hang On Sloopy” in 1965.  He became Rick Derringer in the Seventies and went on to become a solo star (“Rock and Roll Hoochie-Koo”) as well as an in-demand guest guitarist for Steely Dan, Edgar Winter, Alice Cooper and Todd Rundgren.  He wrote and sang “Real American” in 1985 for the World Wrestling Federation, and specifically Hulk Hogan, to use as entrance music.  The music and lyrics, which capitalized on the Cold War patriotic jingoism prevalent at the time, were ideal for the bombastic showbiz of pro wrestling.  Sample lyric: ” I am a real American, fight for the rights of every man, I am a real American, fight for what’s right, fight for your life…”

600x600bf-1“American Baby,” Dave Matthews Band, 2005

When George W. Bush won re-election in 2004, Matthews felt despondent enough to write this song the following day.  Its lyrics urged us to remain hopeful and proud, despite the troubling changes in values apparent in the way the country was conducting its war in Iraq.  The track, which appears on The Dave Matthews Band’s fourth consecutive #1 album “Stand Up,” became the group’s highest charting single at #16.  Sample lyrics:  “I hold on to you, you bring me hope, I’ll see you soon, and if I don’t see you, I’m afraid we’ve lost the way, stay beautiful, baby, I hope you stay, American baby…”

james-brown-living-in-america-scotti-brothers-4“Living in America,” James Brown, 1986

The one-of-a-kind Godfather of Soul had ruled the R&B charts from the early ’60s through the mid-’70s, and had a half-dozen Top Ten pop hits as well (“Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” “I Got You (I Feel Good),””Cold Sweat,”), but fell out of favor during the disco and post-disco era.  He had one last commercial peak in 1986 with “Living in America,” which reached #4.  Written by singer-songwriter Dan Hartman and producer Charlie Midnight, the song was used prominently in the film “Rocky IV” in scenes when the over-the-top patriotic character Apollo Creed entered the boxing arena.  Sample lyrics:  “Living in America, eye to eye, station to station, living in America, hand to hand, across the nation, living in America, got to have a celebration…”

220px-Supertramp_-_Breakfast_in_America“Breakfast in America,” Supertramp, 1979

This intelligent British art-rock band had moved to the US in 1977 following their commercial success here that year, and their next batch of songs reflected a breezy American influence.  The “Breakfast in America” LP was an enormous hit for Supertramp — it was perched at #1 for six weeks in the summer of 1979.  The title track (which stalled at #62 compared to the other three Top Ten hits from the LP) is about a poor British boy who fantasizes about visiting the US but lacks the money to do so:  “Take a jumbo across the water, like to see America, see the girls in California, I’m hoping it’s going to come true, but there’s not a lot I can do…”

R-6931009-1429783951-2070.jpeg“This is Not America,” Pat Metheny Group with David Bowie, 1985

In the 1985 spy film “The Falcon and the Snowman,” Sean Penn and Timothy Hutton play young Americans who sell secrets to the Soviets.  In one scene when they are beaten and tortured while in custody, they protest, “We are Americans!”  The response: “This is not America.”  The song, a collaborative effort by jazz guitarist Pat Metheny and the late great David Bowie, examines how our rights and privileges are often taken for granted until they disappear when on foreign soil:  “There was a time, a wind that blew so young, this could be the biggest sky, and I could have the faintest idea, for this is not America, this is not America…”

R-12602770-1538415650-6818.jpeg“I Love American Music,” Cherry Poppin’ Daddies, 2013

This eclectic band from Eugene, Oregon, has specialized in swing and ska music since the early ’90s.  While they have reached the mainstream pop charts only once, with their “Zoot Suit Riot” single and album in 1997, the group has been one of the hardest working touring bands in the nation for many years.  From their 2013 LP “White Teeth, Black Thoughts” comes the single “I Love American Music,” which celebrates the diversity of musical styles you can hear as you travel around this country:  “When the lights go down and my scales stop showin’, I’ll smash my fingers down on the only truth that’s still worth knowin’, play it, play it again Sam, I want American music, play it, play it again Sam, I need American music…”

mary-chapin-carpenter-6“Goodnight America,” Mary Chapin Carpenter, 2004

Although she has escaped the attentions of mainstream music listeners, Chapin-Carpenter has been a consistent presence on country charts for 25 years, with three platinum albums and numerous Top Five singles there.  Her 2004 album, “Between Here and Gone,” contains the lovely ballad “Goodnight America,” which focuses on the gypsy lifestyle of being a musician on the road — “a weary traveler, but grateful to have the freedom to be one,” as she put it.  Sample lyric:  “I’m a stranger here, no one you would know, I’m from somewhere else, well isn’t everybody though, my ship has not come in, I don’t know where I’ll be when the sun comes up, until then, sweet dreams, goodnight America…”

jackson-browne-for-america-asylum“For America,” Jackson Browne, 1986

One of the premier singer-songwriters to emerge from Southern California in the 1970s, Browne has written dozens of articulately worded ballads and anthems to love and life (“For Everyman,” “Fountain of Sorrow,” “The Pretender”).  By the mid-’80s, the left-leaning Browne had grown disheartened with the actions the Reagan administration was taking abroad, and subsequently released the overtly political album, “Lives in the Balance,” which included the modest #30 single, “For America,” another song that wishes for better days ahead:  “I have prayed for America, I was made for America, I can’t let go ’til she’s comes ’round, until the land of the free is awake and can see, and until her conscience has been found…”

maxresdefault-7“(You Can Still) Rock in America,” Night Ranger, 1983  

This San Francisco-based hard rock band had a pretty good run in the 1980s MTV era with its singles, albums and videos.  Their commercial peak came in 1984 with the #5 power ballad “Sister Christian,” but another song from that “Midnight Madness” album was the hard rock anthem “(You Can Still) Rock in America,” which missed the Top 40 but clicked with the patriotic Sammy Hagar-Ted Nugent crowd that ate up the pro-USA lyrics: “Little brother’s got it ready to roll, tires burning as they head for the show, light it up and turn the music up loud, and rock it, rock it, rock it, you can still rock in America, yeah it’s all right…” 

299796“Living in America,” Aztec Two-Step, 1986

The duo of Rex Fowler and Neal Shulman formed the nucleus of Aztec Two-Step, a lighthearted, lively folk rock band out of Boston.  From their roots in 1971, they have continued to release music and perform live ever since, although without much chart success.  In 1986, they came up with this quirky, optimistic ditty in tribute to Americans everywhere:  “Here’s to the silver screen, ah-ah, the music scene in America, here’s to the arts and crafts, people who make us laugh in America, here’s to the songs, the dance, the true romance, all those who take a chance in America, and here’s to the people too, whose dreams have all come true in America…” 

3587-Dave-Stewart-And-His-Rock-Fabulous-Orchestra-American-Prayer-USA-Download-01“American Prayer,” Dave Stewart, 2008

In 2002, Stewart, formerly with Annie Lennox and the Eurythmics, paired up with U2’s Bono to write this “paean to America based on the poetry of the Declaration of Independence and the taut truth in the Constitution.”  It was first performed during Bono’s Heart of America speaking tour that year to rally support for the fight against the AIDS crisis.  In 2008, Stewart altered some of the lyrics and recorded it “in honor of those working to make the world a better place.”  Sample lyrics:   “These are the hands, what are we gonna build with them, and this is the church you can’t see, and remember, give me your tired, your poor and huddled masses, you know they’re yearning to breathe free, this is my American prayer…”

Americandreamcsny“American Dream,” Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, 1988

Neil Young promised that he would reunite with Crosby, Stills and Nash if David Crosby successfully kicked his severe drug habit, which he did following a prison term in 1986.  The foursome recorded “American Dream” at Young’s ranch, and while the album reached #16 in early 1988, critics and many fans found it lacking somehow.  Young’s title track is a satire of 1980s-era sensational political scandals:  “Reporters crowd around your house, going through your garbage like a pack of hounds, speculating what they may find out, it don’t matter now, you’re all washed up, you tried to make a good thing last, how could something so good go bad so fast?, American dream, American dream…”

220px-SteppenwolfMonster“America,” Steppenwolf, 1969  

Singer John Kay and drummer Jerry Edmonton were among the key members of the ’60s Canadian-American band The Sparrows, who morphed into Steppenwolf, named for the Herman Hesse novel, and had several huge hits (“Born to Be Wild,” “Magic Carpet Ride”).  By the time of their fourth album in late 1969, Kay and Edmonton were writing more political lyrics, including a nine-minute suite entitled “Monster,” which recounted the history of the U.S. in mostly damning terms.  The suite’s final section, “America,” concluded on this uncertain note:  “America, where are you now, don’t you care about your sons and daughters, don’t you know we need you now, we can’t fight alone against the monster…”

Big-Wide-Grin-cover“America the Beautiful,” Keb’ Mo’, 2001 

There are dozens and dozens of versions of this stunning piece, which I’ve always felt would be a better National Anthem than “The Star Spangled Banner.”  It was first written as a poem by Katherine Lee Bates in 1893, then tweaked a bit with a few new lyrics in 1903 and again in 1911.  Samuel Ward wrote the music back in 1882 to an altogether different lyric, “O Mother Dear, Jerusalem.”  Ward’s hymn-like melody was first combined with Bates’s patriotic words in 1910 into the song we all know today.  In the Bi-Centennial year of 1976, two recordings received considerable airplay — Ray Charles’ stirring rendition on the R&B charts, and Charlie Rich’s commanding version on the country charts.  For something different but memorable, check out Keb’ Mo”s version from his “Big Wide Grin” album in 2001.

there-goes-rhymin-simon-55cb86e3971af“American Tune,” Paul Simon, 1973  

I’ve always felt that this song from Simon’s “There Goes Rhymin’ Simon” LP is one of his best works.  The majestic melody is lifted from Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion,” with poignant Simon lyrics that are simultaneously comforting and troubling.  Even 46 years ago, Simon was proud of his country, but concerned about its future:  “We come on the ship they call the Mayflower, we come on the ship that sailed the moon, we come in the age’s most uncertain hour, and sing an American tune, oh, but it’s all right, it’s all right, you can’t be forever blessed, still, tomorrow’s gonna be another working day, and I’m trying to get some rest…”

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And here’s my Honorable Mention list of other “American” songs that may have escaped your attention:  “America Street,” Edwin McCain;  “What Now America,” Lee Michaels, 1970;  “A Brand New America,” Keb’ Mo’;  “Lost in America,” Alice Cooper;  “Miss America,” David Byrne;  “American Dream Plan B,” Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers;   “American Beauty,” Bruce Springsteen;  “Miss America,” Styx;  “In America,” Charlie Daniels Band;  “Lost in America,” Edwin McCain;  “Miss America,” James Blunt;  “American Girls,” Counting Crows.