Many Americans won't have to or won't be able to (or will choose not to) travel at all to celebrate Thanksgiving. But many will, and many of those will drive. And we know that a road trip -- even if it involves being squeezed into a sedan with aunts or cousins you only see once a year; and even if it means having to cradle a pie on your lap for a six-hour drive; and even if it means mind-numbing and butt-numbing traffic -- means music in the car. Well, if you're traveling with the aunts and the cousins, it might not mean music at all, unless your last name is Von Trapp, or dare I say Cyrus. Chances are, though, that there will be music and there will, thus, be singing.
In my own family's car, there was often singing years ago -- before the now-adult children's musical taste either a) became occasionally unsingable or b) rendered them demanding critics of parental singing voices and parental singing impulses in general. One year, though, stands out clearly in my memory as the year my folk-radio station of choice played songs about food all the way to Rhode Island. It's in homage to a song we heard on that particular Thanksgiving trip -- the mysterious, once-heard and never found again, musico-culinary classic "You're My Little Potato" -- that that I give you this short playlist of songs about home. Home as a place longed for or missed, or reached in resignation, in melancholy, or in relief.
1. "Home," Bonnie Raitt, Sweet Forgiveness (written by Karla Bonoff)
"Traveling at night, the headlights were bright, and we'd been up many an hour." Those opening words of "Home" always remind me of the first time I heard the song: playing as I drove myself and a childhood friend home for our first college Thanksgiving. I remember (or think I do, anyway) exactly where we were on the road when the song started up, and though the timing seems fortuitous in retrospect, of course one of us must have chosen the song deliberately for the early part of the drive. (This was a mix-tape made from albums, not some iPod on shuffle.) We were going home for the first time as adults, and we wanted Bonnie Raitt to sing us there. The song suggests an uncomplicated notion of home with "warming fires" that "sings me of sweet things". Bonoff's home offers freedom and strength: "My life there has its own wings. Fly over the mountain, though I'm standing still."
2. "This Must Be The Place" by Shawn Colvin, Cover Girl (original: Talking Heads)
Shawn Colvin can hear someone else's melody and not just redo it but transform it -- while at the same time seeming to find the song's true heart that even the originator missed. It's certainly that way with this song by Talking Heads. Colvin turns the twitchy cadence of David Byrne's performance into a a calm guitar ballad of qualified reassurance. There is flying here too: "I come home. You lifted up your wings. I guess this must be the place." But this is Byrne not Bonoff, so we're not sure of things: we keep having to guess: "Home, it's where I want to be. And I guess I'm already there." Despite its touch of Talking Heads edginess, the song offers the reassurance of "Feet on the ground, head in the clouds, it's okay, I know nothing's wrong." Byrne and Colvin remind us that sometimes home is only ok -- and sometimes that can be enough.
3. "Rockin' Chair" by The Band, The Band
The narrator of "Rockin' Chair" is trying to convince his friend, Ragtime Willy, to go home from their shared life on the sea. All he desires now is the company of those he loves, the simple stories and jokes they'll tell on the porch, and that rocking chair. The narrators of "Home" and even "This Must Be the Place" can sing about flight as a positive consequence of going home. But in Rockin' Chair, the desire is simpler, though much more elusive. (Here is where I've written about this song at greater length.) "I can hear something calling on me," Rick Danko sings, "And I know where I want to be. Oh, Willy can you hear that sound? I just want to get my feet back on the ground." And though the song ends with what sounds like a declaration of success -- "I'll go and see my very best friend. I believe old rocking chair's got me" -- we can't help hearing in the pining quality of Danko's voice the restlessness and the worry that suggest this goal of home might be forever out of reach.
4. "Come On in My Kitchen" by Robert Johnson, The Complete Recordings
It's hard to hear what Robert Johnson is singing all the time in this track from the astonishing collection of hundreds of Johnson's songs. And at one point in the song, it sounds as though he's having a conversation with someone else in the room. But one line stands out in this blues classic. "You better come on in my kitchen because it's bound to be raining outdoors." The song has no explicit reference to home, but it speaks powerfully about shelter. Come on inside because it's bound to be raining outside. Not it is raining; it's bound to be raining. That pessimism is what makes "Come On In My Kitchen" a blues song, of course. There must be an expectation of bad weather even on a dry day. But is Johnson's song really pessimistic at heart? I'd say no. It's a song about welcome and shelter and coming in out of the inhospitable world. If that's not an optimistic song about homecoming, I don't know what is.
Bonus Track: "You're My Little Potato"
This one's not about home -- unless you count the journey of a tuber from the earth to the mashed-potato pot as a return of some sort. But if you can find the song somewhere, you'll get a laugh out of it -- and it makes an appropriate song for the Thanksgiving drive. It's a jaunty number, with a plinky-plink mandolin interlude between the verses and the remarkable lyric "You're my little potato, you're my little potato. You're my little potato. You come from underground." I admire the emphatic repetition of the haunting declaration of fact (and love, as we see from the affectionate 'little'), and the power of the final statement, sung with a decisive three-beat finale of descending notes. No finer song about the potato has likely ever been recorded.
Obviously, this is a highly personal (and dated?) list. Feel free to add your own!