Some swear by cold showers. Others by fermented vegetables and ultramarathons. Still, anyone in need of a quick pick me up could do a lot worse than than to listen to one of the many thanksgiving songs given to us over the centuries by composers from all musical walks of life.


Often brimming with vitality and optimism, they're one of the most simple, cost-effective ways of boosting our mood and restoring our sense of equilibrium. So, in honour of the Thanksgiving holiday, let's take a moment to give thanks for the most famous, most uplifting Thanksgiving songs.

Best Thanksgiving songs

Lydia Maria Child - Over the River and Through the Wood

One of the most popular children's songs for the Thanksgiving holiday is 'Over the River and Through the Wood'. Inspired by her childhood visits to her grandparents, this popular thanksgiving song was written by Lydia Maria Child and published in 1844. Lydia Maria Child was a famous abolitionist, human rights activist, novelist and journalist.

Maurice Greene - Thou Visitest the Earth

Though its composer Maurice Green (1696-1755) is hardly a household name, ‘Thou Visitest the Earth’ is one of the most famous anthems for Harvest Thanksgiving. It consists of just one line from Psalm 65: ‘Thou visits the earth, and blesses it; and crowns the year with thy goodness…’ But what Greene makes of it is delightful: a work, that, in its simple repetitions, vibrant rhythms and light use of polyphony, encapsulates a sense of optimism.

John Rutter - For the Beauty of the Earth

If there's one thing that's true about John Rutter, the guy knows how to write an infectious tune, and this sacred choral composition, setting a hymn of the same name by Folliott S.Pierpoint, is one of his most popular works. He composed it in 1978, changing the refrain to address ‘God of all’ , rather than ‘Christ, our God’, in order to give the hymn a more universal purpose of thanksgiving. What emerged was a cornucopia of Rutterisms: catchy phrases in sequences, jazzy syncopation, harmonies so sweet you could spin candy floss out of them. Initially used as a communion hymn, it soon established itself as a favourite for the Thanksgiving season, and continues to get regular outings on both sides of the Atlantic.

Leonard Bernstein - America

In this song from Bernstein’s West Side Story, Puerto Rican immigrants sing the praises of the USA, albeit with lashings of irony (‘everything free in America / for a small fee in America’). Bernstein’s take on the Hispanic idiom is every bit as incisive as Sondheim’s razor sharp lyrics, making for one of the most famous, if somewhat tongue-in-cheek, tributes to America.

Charles Villiers Stanford - Te Deum in B Flat

Traditionally attributed to the 4th century Saints Ambrose and Augustine, the Te Deum text has often been referred to as a Hymn of Thanksgiving, and has been set by many composers over the years. Sir Charles Villiers Stanford himself set seven versions of it, but this one, written in 1879 for the choir of Trinity College Cambridge, is the most uplifting, and the most widely sung.

George Frideric Handel - But Thanks Be to God (Messiah)

Taking place in Part 3 of Handel’s mighty Messiah, which concentrates on St Paul’s teaching of the resurrection of the dead and Christ’s glorification in heaven, this magnificent chorus serves to dispel the darkness from the preceding number: ‘O death where is thy sting?’. Bursting with joy and vigour, it reminds listeners that followers of Christ will have the ultimate victory as the story of humankind’s redemption approaches its conclusion.

Shaker dance song - Simple Gifts

For the Shakers, a Christian sect that emerged as an offshoot of the Quakers, dance and movement were intertwined with religious worship. So it’s not surprising that this song, written in 1848 by the Maine-based Shaker Elder Joseph Brackett, is so full of life.

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Catchy though it was, it remained largely unknown outside Shaker communities until it caught the attention of 20th century American composer Aaron Copland, who incorporated its melody into the score of his 1944 ballet Appalachian Spring. It is now a thanksgiving classic, though its melody is most familiar to many Brits from ‘Lord of the Dance’ – my favourite hymn at primary school.

Felix Mendelssohn - Thanks be to God (Elijah)

The Messiah of its era, Elijah confirmed Mendelssohn’s reputation as an outstanding composer of sacred music when it was premiered in 1846, and ‘Thanks to be God’ is one of its most rousing offerings. A blaze of brass, scurrying strings and full chorus, it fully embodies the awe-inspiring vision of God conjured up by its text: ‘The stormy billows are high; their fury is mighty. But the Lord is above them, and Almighty!’

Vernon Duke’s Autumn in New York

Although this song was written in 1934, its backstory began in 1921 when Vladimir Dukelsky, a young Belarusian immigrant musician, arrived in New York, where he met and befriended Jacob Gershwine, the son of Russian immigrants.

Gershwine by then had already established his reputation as a composer, under his new name: George Gershwin. At his suggestion, Dukelsky changed his pen name to Vernon Duke, and started writing popular songs. Thirteen years later, while staying in Westport, Connecticut, he wrote this one: a beautifully melancholy expression of homesickness for New York, and the beauty of the city in autumn.

Though Duke later said that it contained no shred of popular appeal in his publisher’s opinion, it nevertheless became embedded as a jazz standard, performed by everyone from opera singer Dawn Upshaw to jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker.

In addition to his popular works, Dukelsky continued to write classical music and Russian poetry under his birth name until 1955.

Bing Crosby’s I’ve got plenty to be thankful for

One of the twelve original songs that Irving Berlin wrote for the 1942 film Holiday Inn, which also included ‘White Christmas’ (one of the best Christmas songs ever), ‘I’ve got plenty to be thankful for’ is, on the surface, a chirpily simple song about gratitude.

The lyrics round up life’s simple blessings: ‘I’ve got eyes to see with/Ears to hear with/Arms to hug with/Lips to kiss with/Someone to adore/How could anybody ask for more?’ Seen in the context of the film, however, where Crosby counters each of the song’s positive declarations with a negative one, the song’s significance is a little more complicated: an acknowledgement that gratitude and melancholy are not mutually exclusive.


Johann Sebastian Bach - Cantata BWV 29‘Wir danken dir, Gott’

The opening chorus of Bach’s 1731 cantata, ‘Wir danken dir, Gott’ (‘We thank you, God, we thank you’) says it all, climbing continuously upward as though on a mission to ascend into heaven. As the chorus unfolds, Bach creates a gradual crescendo, culminating in a climax where seven distinct voices combine with three trumpets and timpani. As a celebration of God’s might and beneficence, it is an awe-inspiring one.


Hannah Nepilova is a regular contributor to BBC Music Magazine. She has also written for The Financial Times, The Times, The Strad, Gramophone, Opera Now, Opera, the BBC Proms and the Philharmonia, and runs The Cusp, an online magazine exploring the boundaries between art forms. Born to Czech parents, she has a strong interest in Czech music and culture.