UKULELE MUSING 2020–26 November 2020: A Thanksgiving Tradition from our Happy Valley–“Over the River and Through the Woods”

As we pass through a strangely different Thanksgiving Day celebration during this pandemic year of sequestration, rather than draft a gently droll posting extolling the wonders Turkey-Bone Soup or Wild Turkey Whiskey cocktails, I am motivated to simply harvest and tweak a posting that a lot of you gentle readers found interesting a couple of years ago. To be quite honest, I can’t think of a better way to think about Thanksgivings past (wonderful), present (strangely sad), and future (looking forward). So, here’s a bit about one of our most popular holiday songs, and one that has links to our “Happy Valley.”  Let’s just call this the beginning of a new tradition. Now, where’s that bottle of Wild Turkey?

A poem by Lydia Maria Child–a resident of the Northampton, Massachusetts, neighborhood of Florence– was originally published in 1844 as “The New-England Boy’s Song about Thanksgiving Day” in a book of her poetry, “Flowers for Children.”  It celebrates the author’s childhood memories of visiting her grandfather’s house during the New England winter.  We best know it today as the song: “Over the River and Through the Woods.”  

Child was a novelist, journalist, teacher, and poet who also wrote extensively about the need to eliminate slavery.   In 1833, she published her book “An Appeal in Favor of that Class of Americans Called Africans.”

It argued in favor of the immediate emancipation of American slaves without compensation to slaveholders. She is sometimes said to have been the first white woman to have written a book in support of this policy. She “surveyed slavery from a variety of angles—historical, political, economic, legal, and moral” to show that “emancipation was practicable and that Africans were intellectually equal to Europeans. The book was the first anti-slavery work printed in America in book form.

She and her husband, David Lee Child–a journalist and lawyer–were ardent abolitionists

and became part of the flourishing abolitionist community in Florence when she wrote and published the poem. It was later set to a tune by an unknown composer. The Childs came to Florence to establish a sugar beet farm and industry that they hoped would supplant the slavery-dependent sugar cane industry of the South. Alas, this was an economic failure and the Childs moved to Lydia’s former home of Wayland, Massachusetts, where he died in 1874, she in 1880.

On to our song. . . In the early 19th century, New England was enduring the so-called Little Ice Age—a colder era with earlier winters—and sleigh rides throughout November were common excursions. 

The original poem celebrated a visit to “grandFATHER’s” house, however, not “grandmother’s” so let’s remember this tidbit of local lore as we get together with our friends and family, alas not this Thanksgiving but next!    

Childs’s original poem was set to music and today, in a simplified form, has become a traditional Thanksgiving sing-a-long ritual that shows up in nearly every so-called Holiday Songbook—particularly those geared to children.  Our Yellow Book has this “grandmothered” version, but it’s worthwhile to hear the original words with their more old-fashioned thoughts and phrases.  Ah, the sweet old days!

Tap or click on the next image or link to listen to this one.

So, gentle readers, think ahead to a future holiday, hopefully with friends and family, and, perhaps at grandmother’s AND/OR grandfather’s house!   Enjoy the song also, as a gift to those of us in our time from a woman who was ahead of her time.

Ah, history in our Happy Valley and in our little Song Book!

We just have to have a ukulele version of this song to keep our spirits up! Click or tap on the next image or link for a gentle musical gift.

So, stay sequestered, stay safe, stay well, and–above all–STAY TUNED!

Author: NohoBanjo of Northampton and, now, Easthampton, Mass.

Hi friends, neighbors, and fellow strummers. These “musings” are based on my interest and study of Banjo and Ukulele history, lore, and music. My goal is to both educate and enlighten by sharing what I have learned within a broad musical and historical context—with honesty and, at times, a bit of humor. Needless to say, your thoughts and comments are, as always, welcome.

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