A lot of American holidays have their own music, and every musician’s fallback is the Christmas album. But I can’t think of any Thanksgiving records, although I’m sure there are some in the contemporary Christian catalog. But we won’t go there. Instead, there’s this short collection of songs centered on the theme of Thanksgiving by Americana fiddler, singer and songwriter Rachel Baiman.
I said short, but it’s really short at just four songs. Thanksgiving packs a big emotional wallop for such a little thing. Rather like the emotions lurking behind this family-centered, uniquely American holiday.
With just four songs and a single theme, Baiman has made some smart choices. Stylistically, the songs range from old-time to bluegrass to country to folk. There are two slow songs and two fast; two sad and two more upbeat, but one of the slow songs is happy and one of the fast songs is sad. Got that?
Of course the little collection pivots around the title track, “Thanksgiving.” It’s a devious little song, heading first one way then turning another. On its surface it’s a fairly simple country ballad, people gathering to break bread and while away the hours with loved ones. But it veers into troubling contemporary events.
She speaks of how, ” … two years ago in November, the fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline was in full swing, and it just got me thinking about how the relationship between indigenous and white people in this country has hardly changed at all over the years.” The song, set to gently plucked banjo and strummed acoustic guitar, goes on to speak of the ironies of the holiday, how it celebrates the way Native Americans helped the English colonists survive. “The irony of Thanksgiving being celebrated right as people were being arrested and sprayed with water guns for protecting their right to clean water really hit me,” she says.
The EP opens with the bouncy bluegrass ditty “Tent City.” The protagonist seems to be celebrating his home, as Baiman fiddles up a storm. But a close listen to the lyrics reveals that this is a guy struggling with addiction and homelessness, due to economic factors and his own mistakes. Still, he seems upbeat about his life, scrounging cigarette butts off the street, dulling his pain and boredom with drink and weed when he can, as he says “Visit me sometime in Tent City.”
Truly upbeat is Baiman’s cover of the great John Hartford’s old-timey number “Madison Tennessee.” She sings it in a duet and Molly Tuttle drives the song with her award-winning guitar picking. Baiman says she picked this one because she’s about to get married and she and her fiance recently moved to Madison, Tennessee, where they’re fixing up a cabin to live in. “This Hartford tune makes me feel giddy about home, and for me that’s what Thanksgiving is all about.” I’m certain Hartford would be tickled to have this little song of his nestled in among these three of Baiman’s.
The EP wraps up with a timely love song, “Times Like These,” in duet with guitarist and singer Josh Oliver. He has a sorrowful, rough-hewn folk-singer’s voice that perfectly complements Baiman’s smooth but colorful soprano. The song is a plea to leave behind the cares of the turbulent world for a while for a little domestic bliss. “Put down your paper / And turn off the news / Won’t you come closer / And kick off your shoes. / Open the window / And let in the breeze / Darling I need you / Living in times like these.”
Join me in giving thanks for clear-eyed yet hopeful young musicians like Rachel Baiman and her collaborators.
(Free Dirt, 2018)