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The Thanksgiving Playlist

by Alan Haber alan 5 small

“Cornbread, oysters, water chestnuts, andouille sausage,”says President Josiah Bartlet, in answer to White House Communications Director Toby Ziegler’s question about the kind of stuffing his boss will be serving on Thanksgiving.

“What kind of stuffing are we talking about?” Ziegler asks, knowing full well that if the stuffing falls short, the rest of the offerings sharing table space with it–candied yams topped with tiny, melted marshmallows; cranberry sauce; baked-to-perfection crescent rolls; cole slaw; green beans; gravy; and warm pecan, sweet potato or pumpkin pie–will also curry little favor. To surround the Thanksgiving turkey with heartless, tasteless, unwanted stuffing is to practically guarantee that the holiday gathering will sink like a deeply sorrowful stone.

Fictional though the above question and answer volley may be, having occurred during an episode of television’s The West Wing, the point made is an important one. Like any holiday gathering, every element that powers its engine must not only hold its own weight, but also serve a purpose if Uncle Joe, Aunt Merry, cousin Bob, sister Sue, and Rex the Wonder Dog are to enjoy themselves.

More important than the food on the table, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade®, or close-quartered football contests in the backyard, is the music that is played in the background, just loud enough to be heard over and above the ongoing bouts of banter stuffed with family gossip and weather predictions ripped from the latest edition of the Farmers’ Almanac.

It may as well be said, and there may even be such a saying–it may as well be said that if the Thanksgiving holiday playlist isn’t secure, the holiday gathering will likely fall. One wrong song, one wrong minuet–one wrong note even, and catastrophe may well ensue. The basic sanctity of the Thanksgiving holiday get-together is always on the line.

Being entrusted with the creation of a credible Thanksgiving day playlist is perhaps the highest honor that can be bestowed on anyone. Therefore, it follows that beyond creating a tantalizing menu, choosing just the right mix of music is of paramount importance. Such a task must never fall to just anyone. Your friend Breezy, for example, has a hard time distinguishing crooner Andy Williams from XTC’s Andy Partridge, so he’s out.

It is important to get a good idea of your guests’ musical likes and dislikes. Which types of music do they enjoy? Pop? Rock? Roll? Middle-of-the-road? The Traveling Wilburys’ “End of the Line”? Ozzy? Dizzy? “Shake, Rattle and Roll”? Which decade do your guests prefer? Forties? Fifties? Sixties? 1989? Do they cringe when they hear the gated reverb sounds favored by record producers in the Eighties? Culture Club or Tom Tom Club? Shirley Manson or Shirley Bassey?

You’ll need at least eight to 10 hours of music separated into sets, a playlist industry technical term, targeting different day parts and, more importantly, moods. More upbeat songs should be played during the daylight hours, with the more subdued, ballad-y numbers relegated to six p.m. or so and later. Avoid playing certain songs that suffer from both listener and airplay burnout, such as Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven,” because the last thing you need is a relative or next-door neighbor freaking out over the memory of having more times than not experienced a bustle in their hedgerow.

If the preponderance of people gathered around your Thanksgiving dinner table are of a certain age, aka children of the 1960s or those who know the difference between the terms “revolution per minute” and “rapid eye movement,” you will want to be ready to switch between songs by the Beatles and the Rolling Stones at a moment’s notice. If someone poses the question, “Which version of ‘I Want to Be Your Man’ is better?”, you will be wise to have a bottle of seltzer at the ready to hose down the people with the so-called “definitive answers.”

Lastly, you will want to play the perfect song as your guests leave your home at the end of the night. Unfortunately, there is no tried-and-true method to employ in this regard, so you’ll have to go with your gut. Although your gut may tell you to leave them laughing and play a song that celebrates the holiday but not necessarily the turkey, like this one:

you may want to opt for something that celebrates the spirit of the holiday instead. In fact, all kidding aside, what with everything that has gone on in the world of late, playing this song for your guests as they gather their coats and galoshes, if there is a chance of rain or snow, or their umbrellas, as they gather their children and brace themselves for the ride home, this song may be the best way to communicate the spirit of Thanksgiving or any other day during which we gather with friends and family to celebrate the spirit of our humanity.

Happy Thanksgiving.

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