There is more Thanksgiving music! I find it fascinating to look at the stories behind music we use – to see how long the music has been around, and to find out the story behind it. I found some interesting things for these Thanksgiving music selections!
We Gather Together
A wartime celebration song as a Thanksgiving hymn? From the 1500’s? Very interesting! Here’s the story. Originally written in the late 1500’s, Valerius Adrianus first published the song in 1626. The melody for the song, Kremser, an old Dutch folk melody dates back even further. Evidently, this was quite a popular melody, and had other words set to it originally.
In the late 1500’s the Dutch had been fighting against the Spanish for some years. The Dutch were trying to regain their political freedom, their religious freedom, and at least some of their land from Spain. A strategic and important battle of the Eighty Year’s War occurred at the city of Turnhout in 1597. This song was written to celebrate the Dutch victory over the Spanish after that battle.
So how did this military victory song make it to America and into our hymnbooks? Although the Pilgrims most likely did not bring this song over with them, they possibly knew this song, since many of them lived in Holland for several years prior to coming to America. Most likely, the song traveled across the ocean with Dutch settlers in the early 1600’s.
We Gather Together was a popular song in the Dutch Reformed communities. For many years the Dutch Reformed church sang only Psalms in their worship services. When, in 1937, the Dutch Reformed began to include hymns in their services, We Gather Together was the first hymn in their new hymnbooks.
Theodore Baker translated the words for this song into English in 1894. He used the song for an anthem entitled “Prayer for Thanksgiving.” It was included in the Methodist-Episcopal hymnal in 1935.
Since the song has some military connections, it became very popular during the times of the two World Wars. There are also themes in the song about God’s blessings, His presence with us during difficult times, spiritual victories, and God’s sovereignty.
That’s right – Jingle Bells was not written as a Christmas song, even though it is used as one! Although this is one of the best-known American songs in the world, there is controversy surrounding its origins.
The writer of the song, James Lord Pierpont, was a bit of a rebel. (You may recognize the last name – His nephew was J. P. Morgan, of the banking industry.) He ran away from boarding school when he was young, did not get along well with his father, took off to California to try and make his fortune during the Gold Rush. He later ended up as an organist for a church in Savannah, Georgia.
The when and the where of the writing of this song is where the controversy lies. Some claim Pierpont wrote the song in 1850, in Medford, MA. Others claim he wrote the song in 1857, In Savannah, GA. One historian says Pierpont could not have written the song in Massachusetts in 1850 because he was still in California at the time. Very likely the song was written around 1857 in Massachusetts, shortly before Pierpont moved to Savannah, Georgia.
Some say that the song was first performed by a Sunday School choir for a Thanksgiving program, but others claim that the song was not suitable at all for Sunday School children to be singing. We do know that it was first performed in Boston in September of 1857. Surprisingly, there is no mention of any holiday in the song. Rather, Pierpont was remembering sleigh rides from his childhood.
You might find this interesting – Two astronauts aboard Gemini 6 in 1965 performed Jingle Bells from space. Tom Stafford and “Wally” Schirra had smuggled a small harmonica and a small set of bells onto their spacecraft, and “performed” the song for Mission Control shortly before Christmas that year.
Come, Ye Thankful People, Come
This is a much more traditional and standard Thanksgiving hymn, as far as its background goes. Henry Alford, an Anglican minister and the writer of this hymn, published the song in 1844. Originally the song had seven stanzas, but today most books only include four verses.
The words to the song have been altered through the years, even though Alford was not in favor of several of the changes. Harvest Home, a festival celebrated for centuries in England, is a time of celebration and thankfulness for a successful growing season and harvest. Traditionally people brought “offerings” of grain and produce to the church and arranged it in a bountiful display. After the celebratory service all the food from the display was given to the area poor. So the song reflects a thankful attitude and an expression of gratitude to God for bountiful blessings.
As we celebrate this Thanksgiving season, we would do well to consider all the great blessings we are given every day!
Did you miss our other discussion of Thanksgiving songs? Read it here: Thanksgiving Songs