"Top Five" 'Real' Thanksgiving songs


Though Thanksgiving has come to mean a time for family, togetherness and giving, the oppressive and imperialistic nature of the first American settlers is often lost to history. This list serves as a reminder that beneath the warm feelings we choose to celebrate, there is a dark side to our prosperity as a nation. So when you’re loosening your belt and watching the Detroit Lions get shellacked this year, crank up these songs and remember those who got shoved aside to further the American dream.

“Thanksgiving Prayer” – William S. Burroughs
For those of you who don’t know, Burroughs was a seminal member of the “Beat Generation” as an essayist, novelist and most importantly, a social critic and a self-described opiate addict, among other things. This isn’t a song; it is a spoken word performance that celebrates America in a very tongue-in-cheek manner, but it’s perfect for the purposes of this list. Burroughs gives “Thanks for a continent to despoil and poison/Thanks for Indians to provide a modicum of challenge and danger/Thanks for vast herds of bison to kill and skin leaving the carcasses to rot/Thanks for the American dream, to vulgarize and to falsify until the bare lies shine through.”

“Alice’s Restaurant Massacree” – Arlo Guthrie
In this 18-minute song/monologue, singer-songwriter Arlo Guthrie tells a true account of a sordid situation he became involved in on Thanksgiving 1965. It has a humorous tone, but exists as a deadpan protest to the Vietnam War draft and a very real account of what it’s like to be part of the ‘60s counterculture. In the Northeast, it is often played on Thanksgiving Day on the radio, but because of it’s length, it has waned in popularity throughout the years. The song starts with Guthrie getting arrested for littering, which later causes him to be rejected from the draft, much to his delight. But it is the story and characters in between that make this a slice of anti-establishment nostalgia.

“The American Ruse” – MC5
The Detroit-based ‘60s band MC5, though often not credited with it, started the whole garage-punk thing. Its lyrics were smart and anti-establishment, and its sounds were timeless, but this song is truly one of its best. Along the lines of Burroughs’ mild tirade, MC5 echoes the idea that things haven’t changed much in America. Lyrics like “I learned to say the pledge of allegiance/Before they beat me bloody down at the station/They haven’t got a word out of me since/I got a billion years probation/I’m sick and tired of paying these dues/And i’m sick to my guts of the American ruse” tell the tale of a tumultuous time that often feels like it hasn’t passed.

“Freedom” – Rage Against the Machine
Never a group that shied away from controversy, Rage Against the Machine brought an anger and awareness to mainstream music in the ‘90s with an aural onslaught of politically and socially charged lyrics. This song in particular attacks the government’s mistreatment of American Indians and in one great pissed-off six-minute gesture, the band manages to provide an energy release for listeners while educating them at the same time. In the video, a quote from Chief Sitting Bull scrolls across the screen: “What treaty that the whites have kept has the red man broken? Not one. What treaty that the white man ever made with us have they kept? Not one.” Pretty heavy stuff.

“Rockin’ in the Free World” – Neil Young
Neil Young is no stranger to protest having penned the song “Ohio” about the Kent State massacre, among many others. Though this isn’t his best song, it’s one of the better known ones. The lyrics make it perfect for this list :“We got a thousand points of light/For the homeless man/We got a kinder, gentler, Machine gun hand/We got department stores/and toilet paper/Got Styrofoam boxes/for the ozone layer/Got a man of the people, says keep hope alive/Got fuel to burn, got roads to drive.”

Compiled by Jason Yurgartis.