Unlike Christmas or New Year’s Eve or even Halloween, Thanksgiving has no established musical repertoire. That makes sense, because it’s a relatively new tradition. But it’s also surprising, given all that music can do for us on the day. It can motivate and quicken our pace while we prepare for the festivities. It can soothe tensions and keep the party going when conversation falters. And it can bring folks closer together, even in the same room.

This year marks the 75th anniversary of the joint resolution of Congress that established Thanksgiving as the fourth Thursday in November. Yet the holiday has ancient and diverse roots. The concept of celebrating a bountiful harvest communally cuts across cultural lines and must be as old as agriculture itself. And whenever groups of people come together for a celebration, you can be sure of two things: There will be food, and there will be music.

Having ready access to a playlist — songs and compositions that accompany the holiday’s rituals at home — could prove especially crucial for Thanksgiving 2016. Rather than rehash election results, debate the future leadership of our nation, watch a football game you don’t really care about or stew in silence, you can offer a choice of music that can create communion through shared discovery.

In many ways, Thanksgiving is the most challenging and interesting holiday to curate music for. I say that as someone who has spent a lifetime playing many genres of music in a wide variety of situations; working at a record store, which at times involved the duties of a lifestyle counselor; and serving in my current role as classical radio host.

Listening to music that is perhaps outside your gathering’s normal experience may help remind everyone why they’ve come together. The connection they feel may supersede external forces of social upheaval, just as it did for our ancestors. Experience has taught me that great music has the power to transform the atmosphere of a room. It can smooth rough edges and frayed nerves while investing all within hearing range with a holiday spirit.

To that end, here are playlists by genre — classical, rock/pop, Latin, jazz and an eclectic mix — for Thanksgiving Day, to accompany you from vegetable chopping to a post-cleanup, well-sated haze.

Jacobs is a cellist, music teacher and classical radio host who divides his time between New York, where he works as a teaching artist in the public schools through Midori & Friends, and Washington, where he can be heard every Saturday night on Classical WETA 90.9 FM.

CLASSICAL by James David Jacobs

In preparing the classical playlist, I was drawn to the ideas of abundance and comfort, and music that could reward both attentive and ambient listening.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Serenade offers a feast for the senses, drawing on the unique colors of woodwind instruments. Igor Stravinsky offers spiky energy and moments of reflection as well to accompany the last of the housecleaning before everyone arrives. Robert Schumann coined the phrase “heavenly length” to describe the hour-long running time of Schubert’s “Great C Major” Symphony — a phrase that hopefully will describe your holiday feast.

After dinner, there’s music to lovingly fill the silences of a collective stupor: Beethoven’s sublime “Hymn of Thanksgiving,” which he composed after recovering from an illness, followed by the hypnotic, almost minimalist textures of the “Agnus Dei” from Josquin des Prez’s “Missa l’homme armé,” in which the composer takes a well-known military marching song and transforms it into a plea for peace, musically beating swords into plowshares.

Before the meal

Mozart, Serenade no. 10 in B-flat “Gran Partita” K. 361

Claudio Monteverdi, “Vespro della beata Vergine (1610): Sonata sopra Santa Maria”

Monteverdi, “Vespro della beata Vergine (1610): Hymnus: Ave maris stella”

Monteverdi, “Chiome d’oro”

Stravinsky, Violin Concerto in D

During dinner

Franz Schubert, Symphony No. 9 in C, D. 944 “Great”

Clara Schumann, “Three Romances,” Op. 22

Antonin Dvorak, String Quartet No. 12 in F, Op. 96, B. 179 “American”

Henry Cowell, “Hymn & Fuguing Tune No. 10”


John Dowland, “Lady Hunsdon’s Puffe”

Dowland, “Goe From My Window”

Maurice Ravel, Introduction and Allegro, M. 46

Federico Mompou, “Musica Callada: No. 27, Molto lento”

Johannes Brahms, Sonata for Clarinet and Piano in E-flat, Op. 120 No. 2: I, Allegro amabile

Bernard Herrmann, “Souvenirs de voyage: I. Andante pastorale”

Ludwig van Beethoven, String Quartet in A Minor, op. 132: II. Allegro ma non tanto

Beethoven, String Quartet in A Minor, op. 132: III. Molto Adagio

Josquin des Prez, “Missa l’homme armé sexti toni: Agnus Dei”

ROCK/POP by Chris Richards

Here’s a seasonal, musical mystery: In a world overcrowded with Christmas carols, why are there so few Thanksgiving songs? And let us be clear: By “so few,” we mean “diddly-squat.”

Perhaps it’s because the feelings we associate with Thanksgiving — gratitude, hunger — are so decently represented across decades of popular music.

In the following pre-dinner playlist, you’ll find tunes that address those two themes, as well as a last-second reminder from country star Kacey Musgraves about maintaining decorum at the table. During dinner, the music is funky, jazzy and heavily instrumental. Rhythm helps digestion, but lyrics tend to distract from conversation. And for your cleanup soundtrack, try some louder, funkier tunes about gratefulness, followed by a few nudges toward a second helping.

Big Star, “Thank You Friends”

Sly and the Family Stone, “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)”

Hank Williams, “Hey, Good Lookin'”

Miranda Lambert, “The House That Built Me”

The Isley Brothers, “Harvest for the World”

The Beach Boys, “Vegetables”

Tony Allen, “Home Cooking”

The Kinks, “Maximum Consumption”

Medium Medium, “Hungry, So Angry”

Kacey Musgraves, “Biscuits”

The J.B.’s, “Pass the Peas”

The Ventures, “Gravy (For My Mashed Potatoes)”

Booker T & the MGs, “Green Onions”

Vince Guaraldi Trio, “Thanksgiving Theme”

Eddie Condon, “Home Cooking”

John Fahey, “Give Me Cornbread When I’m Hungry”

Don Cherry, “Brown Rice”

Thelonious Monk, “Stuffy Turkey”

Count Basie, “After Supper”

John Legend, “Save Room”

Bob Marley and the Wailers, “Give Thanks and Praises”

Led Zeppelin, “Thank You”

Beastie Boys, “Gratitude”

Sam and Dave, “I Thank You”

Deniece Williams, “That’s What Friends Are For”

Poolside, “Harvest Moon”

Popcaan, “Give Thanks”

Muddy Waters, “I Can’t Be Satisfied”

Busta Rhymes, “Gimme Some More”

Memphis Minnie, “Keep On Eating”

JAZZ by Matt Schudel

As it happens, the musical genre that offers up some of the song titles most apt for Thanksgiving is the one I love most: jazz. A diligent look through a well-curated record collection proves the point.

To prepare for the meal, you need to get provisions from the “Big Butter and Egg Man,” you have to find the right turkey — or, as Charlie Parker would have it, “Chasin’ the Bird” — and you need the energy of Nat Adderley’s “Work Song.”

Then, when you sit down to “Dinner With Friends” (by Count Basie), you’re “Carvin’ the Bird,” and you ask “Are You Going to Eat That?” until “Something’s Gotta Give.”

But, finally, “The Party’s Over,” and it’s time to clean up with “Black Coffee” as you look back on “a house that rings with joy and laughter with the ones you love inside” of “Give Me the Simple Life.”

Before the meal

Rosemary Clooney, “Come On-a My House”

Louis Armstrong or Wynton Marsalis, “Big Butter and Egg Man”

Charlie Parker, “Chasin’ the Bird”

Nat Adderley, “Work Song”

Coleman Hawkins, “Stuffy”

Duke Ellington, “Jumpin’ Punkins”

Ben Webster, “Cocktails for Two”

Dizzy Gillespie, “Salt Peanuts”

Louis Armstrong, “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue”

Louis Armstrong and Maggie Jones, “Anybody Here Want to Try My Cabbage?”

During dinner

Ruby Braff and Ellis Larkins, “Suppertime”

Barney Bigard, “Clarinet Gumbo”

Charlie Parker, “Carvin’ the Bird”

Nat “King” Cole, “Frim Fram Sauce”

Bob Dorough, “I Get the Neck of the Chicken”

Count Basie, “Sweetie Cakes”

Ahmad Jamal, “Tater Pie”

Mike Melvoin, “Are You Going to Eat That?”

Frank Sinatra, “Something’s Gotta Give”


Count Basie, “Dinner With Friends”

Giacomo Gates, “Scotch and Soda”

Wynton Marsalis, “The Party’s Over”

Diana Krall, “Peel Me a Grape”

Ella Fitzgerald, “Black Coffee”

Gene Harris Quartet, “Hot Toddy”

Scott Hamilton, “Tonight I Shall Sleep With a Smile on My Face”

Nat “King” Cole, “Walkin’ My Baby Back Home”

Dave Brubeck, “Thank You”

LATIN by Julyssa  Lopez

Count on a dash of boogaloo, a pinch of reggaeton and a huge heaping of salsa here. The songs crisscross Latin American countries and intertwine old and new generations, providing a veritable crash course on emerging Latin pop and throwback melodies.

Kick off your meal prep with Héctor Lavoe’s jubilant “La Murga”: that opening trumpet proudly announces you’re ready to tackle business in the kitchen, and a string of salsa, merengue and cumbia classics helps you stay on task. Tunes from newcomers such as Panamanian rappers Los Rakas and French-Cuban twins Ibeyi are lively but restrained enough for good dinner table conversation once you’re ready to eat. For the cleanup brigade, there are plenty of songs to move to, including the addictive “Nuestra Canción” from up-and-coming Mexican American rapper Snow Tha Product.

Once the kitchen is tidy, contemplate all the things you’re thankful for with Violeta Parra’s staple, “Gracias a La Vida.” Then pour yourself a glass of wine and relax with Celia Cruz’s stunning “Vieja Luna”– a song that, like any good tradition, never gets old.

Before the meal

Héctor Lavoe and Willie Colón, “La Murga”

iLe, “Te Quiero Con Bugalú”

Carlos Vives, “Pa’ Mayté”

Banda Blanca, “Sopa de Caracol”

Monsieur Periné, “Sabor a Mi”

Luis Enrique, “Yo No Sé Mañana”

Afro-Cuban All Stars, “Baila Mi Son”

Porter, “Huitzil”

Calle 13, “La Hormiga Brava”

Wilfrido Vargas, “Abusadora”

During dinner

Ray Barretto, “Guararé”

Los Rakas, “Africana”

Alex Ferreira, “Naturaleza”

Bomba Estéreo, “Mar (Lo Que Siento)”

Jarabe de Palo, “Escriban Más Canciones”

Juan Luis Guerra, “Bachata en Fukuoka”

Maria Usbeck, “Moai Y Yo”

Ghetto Kids and MKN, “Tu Mirada”

Prince Royce, “El Amor Que Perdimos”

Ibeyi, “River”


Novalima, “San Antonio”

Los Mirlos, “La Danza de Los Mirlos”

Snow Tha Product, “Nuestra Canción”

Notch and Baby Ranks, “Verme”

El Cuarteto de Nos, “Enamorado Tuyo”

Vicente García, “Carmesí”

Carla Morrison, “Azúcar Morena”

Javier Solis, “Sombras”

Monchy & Alexandra, “Dos Locos”

Violeta Parra, “Gracias a la Vida”

Celia Cruz, “Vieja Luna”

ANYTHING GOES by James David Jacobs

Like the Thanksgiving feast itself, this playlist draws on a number of cultures and traditions. We go back to 13th-century Spain for selections from the Cantigas de Santa Maria, a project created by a multicultural arts council that included Jews, Christians and Muslims all working side by side. From the Mississippi Delta, Robert Johnson implores us to come into his kitchen, and the great Bulgarian clarinettist Ivo Papasov will have you dancing to new and unexpected rhythms while you make your final preparations.

After dinner, you can unwind and commune to klezmer; French accordion; hypnotic, beautiful and non-silent John Cage; Gershwin (via Keith Jarrett); and Nina Simone. A constant presence throughout the day will be the gentle banjo and voice of Pete Seeger, reminding us that American culture, like salad dressing and gravy, is a meeting of elements that are naturally repellent to one another but, once emulsified, can be greater than the sum of their parts — and delicious.

Before the meal

Alfonso X, “Quen a Virgen ben servira” (Cantiga de Santa Maria No. 103)

Valerie Coleman, “Umoja”

Pete Seeger, “Goofing-Off Suite”: “Opening Theme”; “Chorale from Symphony No. 9” (Beethoven arr. Seeger); “Blue Skies” (Irving
Berlin arr. Seeger)

Robert Johnson, “Come On in My Kitchen”

Reverend Gary Davis, “Twelve Gates to the City”

Kevin Wimmer, “Haymaker’s Hoedown”

Pete Seeger, “Goofing-Off Suite”: “Russian Folk Themes and Yodel” (Stravinsky arr. Seeger)

Diego Ortiz, “Recercadas Segunda Sobre el Passamezzo Moderno”

Ivo Papasov, “Kurdzhaliiska Ruchenica”

Jimi Hendrix (arr. Psychograss), “Third Stone From the Sun”

Horacio Salinas, “Danza”

During dinner

Alfonso X, “Toda cousa que aa Virgen” (Cantiga de Santa Maria No. 117)

Lou Harrison, “Seven Pastorales: I. For Remy Charlip”

Henry Kaiser, “Dihy”

Muzsikas, “Repulj madar, repulj” (“Fly, Bird, Fly”)

Joni Mitchell, “Ladies of the Canyon”

Lou Harrison, “Seven Pastorales: II. For Ellie and David Decker on Their Marriage”

Anonymous 4, “Wondrous Love”

Asani, “Oti Nikan”

Trio Kavkasia, “Shirakis Velze”

William Byrd, “The Carman’s Whistle”

Henry Kaiser, “Vavarano”

Pete Seeger, “John Riley”

Anonymous 4, “Shall We Gather at the River”

Pura Fé, “Grammah Easter’s Lullaby”


Zlatne Uste, “Slow Song”

John Cage, “In a Landscape”

Ensemble Alcatraz, “Alavanca de Mudanza”

Muzsikas, “Mezosegi tanc (Folkdance)”

Brave Old World, “Klaybt Zikh Tsunoyf (Gather Together)”

French Café Ensemble, “Midnight Café”

George Gershwin (arr. Keith Jarrett), “Someone to Watch Over Me”

Nina Simone, “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free”

Pete Seeger, “Goofing-Off Suite”: “Anitra’s Dance/Brandy Leave Me Alone” (Grieg arr. Seeger); “Opening Theme (Reprise)”

Bright Light Quartet, “I’m Tired”