When I was growing up in Honolulu, Thanksgiving meant dinner out on the lanai. The setting was tropical: a garden framed by ginger flowers and stephanotis vines, mango and banana trees. The house was modest, the view lovely from the table to the back of Niu Valley, where volcanic ridges swept up into the clouds. The food was traditional: turkey with all the fixings. The music was traditional too: old-fashioned, mainland American.
Cooking and setting the table, we listened to LPs of Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring and Songs of Stephen Foster. The Stephen Foster record presented the tunes in their original settings for voice and piano and included sweet, dreamy numbers, like “Jeanie With the Light Brown Hair”; sad Civil War ballads, like “Was My Brother in the Battle?”; and rollicking ditties, like “If You’ve Only Got a Moustache.” My parents, sister Paula, and I especially loved the funny ones. Paula, my father, and I marched around the living room half singing, half shouting:
You will suit all the girls to a hair
If you’ve only got a moustache,
A moustache, A MOUSTACHE,
(big gulp of air)
IFFFFFFF you’ve only got a moustache.
(fall onto the couch laughing)
Years later, it’s not the food I remember most, although my mother was a superb cook, or the garden, although I realize now that few have the privilege of eating Thanksgiving dinner outdoors. It’s the music, the laughter, and the background hum of my mother’s KitchenAid mixer. These sounds brought us together, even before we sat down at the table.
Nostalgic, I bought a CD of the Foster record a few years ago, and I play it every Thanksgiving for my own family. That tradition doesn’t transfer perfectly. My four children are growing up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, not Honolulu. Our Thanksgiving dinners are decidedly indoor affairs, and my kids do not sing along with me to the old Foster numbers. I’ve found, however, that they can’t get enough of the Depression-era tunes from the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? They particularly love an incantatory version of “Down to the River to Pray,” sung by Alison Krauss.
My eight-year-old daughter sings in one breath: “When I went down to the river to pray studying about that good old way, and who shall wear the starry crown…”
“No!” one of her brothers breaks in. “That’s not how it goes.”
But she’s already onto the chorus, swept along by the song’s current, and the whole family joins in: “O sisters, let’s go down, let’s go down, come on dowwwwwn…”
To me, Thanksgiving means listening to all sorts of American music. Old and new. Copland and Krauss. Foster and the funky Carolina Chocolate Drops with their pristine fiddling and earthy vocals. Thanksgiving means listening to my children sing, correct one another’s lyrics, and then belt louder. Once again, I can hear the KitchenAid hum in the background, but it’s my eldest son baking, and rolling out piecrusts for dessert.
Visit iTunes to download the complete Thanksgiving Day playlist compiled by Allegra Goodman.
Allegra Goodman is the author of seven books, including, most recently, the novel The Cookbook Collector ($17, amazon.com).