Thanksgiving Music

Thanksgiving is upon us, and across the country our readers are making plans and preparations for Turkey Day. What kind of Thanksgiving-related music can we find in the Music Division’s stacks? Out of curiosity, I visited our “subject files” in the office to see what sort of information our reference librarians collected back before the internet graced our lives. Our “Thanksgiving Music” folder holds a single card:

“Thanksgiving Music” subject file, Music Division, Library of Congress.

It’s fascinating to see what half a century and technological revolution can bring us now. The Library of Congress online catalog features a “Thanksgiving Day—Songs and music” subject heading that you can browse for both printed scores and sound recordings related to Thanksgiving hymns and related music. A couple of the older music printings piqued my interest. First, there’s Rev. W.M. Hubbard’s “New National Thanksgiving Hymn,” registered for copyright in the District Court for the District of Massachusetts in 1863.

“New National Thanksgiving Hymn,” Words and Music composed and arranged by Rev. W.M. Hubbard. Boston, 1863. Call number M2097.H. Music Division, Library of Congress.

“The President’s Hymn: Give Thanks, All Ye People…” New York, 1863. Call number M2092.4.M Case. Music Division, Library of Congress.

The music was actually registered on October 20?, 1863 – just weeks after President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed that the final Thursday of November would mark a national day of Thanksgiving, officially beginning our modern-day Thanksgiving observance. In fact, the Music Division also holds another piece of 1863 music written in response to Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Proclamation: Joseph W. Turner and William Augustus Muhlenberg’s Give Thanks, all ye People: A National Hymn, in response to the proclamation of the President of the United States, recommending a general Thanksgiving, on November 26, 1863.

And though Lincoln was the first to designate the final Thursday of November as our Thanksgiving Day, Americans observed days of thanks and gratitude long before 1863 as well. Prior presidents proclaimed national days of thanks on various unfixed dates; for example, George Washington designated November 26, 1789 as a Day of National Thanksgiving in his first presidential proclamation. And presidents were not the only officials allowed to proclaim official Thanksgiving days during this era – governors could as well. Massachusetts Governor John Hancock proclaimed November 29, 1792 a day of Thanksgiving and Praise in the state.

Earlier that year, William Cooper’s score for An Anthem Designed for Thanksgiving Day But Proper for Any Publick Occasion was published by Isaiah Thomas and Ebenezer T. Andrews on Newbury Street in Boston.

“An Anthem designed for Thanksgiving Day…” by William Cooper. Boston, 1792. Call number M2116.C87 H5 Case. Music Division, Library of Congress.

The preface to the anthem is dated February 1792 and indicates that the piece was “composed for performance on a Thanksgiving Day, at the request of a Choir of Singers belonging to one of the Churches in this town.” According to Karl Kroeger in the preface to his anthology of anthems entitled Early American Anthems, Part 1: Anthems for Public Celebrations, Thanksgiving served as “perhaps the most important holiday for the Congregational church in New England” and “more anthems were composed for [Thanksgiving] (at least twenty-six by seventeen different composers) than for any other purpose.” (p. xiv)

Cover of “Toast then the Turkey,” registered on November 4, 1904. Copyright registration number 84871, Library of Congress.

You can find more Thanksgiving-related music by searching our digitized music holdings on the Library of Congress website, including George W. Morgan and John Keynton’s “National Thanksgiving Hymn,” published in 1878 and respectfully dedicated to “his excellency” Rutherford B. Hayes. Aside from the Library of Congress website, you can access historic sheet music in the Sheet Music Consortium, a database that searches the digitized holdings of over 30 participating institutions. Search with terms like “Thanksgiving,” “Turkey,” and “Gobble” to get some fun results!

We in the Music Division hope that all of our readers enjoy a happy Thanksgiving, whether it’s a bustling one with lots of extended family or a quieter holiday with a couple of your favorite people. And don’t forget, there are plenty of ways to locate appropriate music to give thanks!

Gobble, gobble!



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