James Lumsden: Music and community on Thanksgiving Eve


Correction: The concert to raise emergency fuel assistance funds for Berkshire residents takes place at First Church on Park Square at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 27, not 3 p.m. as previously stated. This article has been amended to reflect this change.


I have been thinking a great deal about Thanksgiving these days, especially our commitment to care for the wider community as part of our celebration, and that includes the power of music-making and community-building. We regularly put on a concert on Thanksgiving Eve and over the years they have changed dramatically.

Back when I first started in ministry, they were built upon my version of what Pete Seeger and Arlo Guthrie used to do at Carnegie Hall after Thanksgiving: hold a HUGE family reunion for those who loved their music and invited everyone to sing along. I was also deeply influenced by Bob Franke's song, "Thanksgiving Eve" that evokes the emotions of his experience of joining together on Thanksgiving Eve with other musicians and cooking and singing together.

We started doing these shows in Saginaw, Mi. and have continued for over 30 years in Cleveland, Tucson -- and Pittsfield. And each incarnation has been different and sacred to me.


In Michigan, it was a small, acoustic quartet. In Arizona it was a 12-person rock ensemble. And here in Pittsfield it has grown to 25+ local musicians blending their sounds into a musical tapestry. There are three ingredients, however, that have been a constant: First, they have always been a celebration of American music (broadly defined. ) That doesn't mean it is the best or only music; just that on this uniquely American holy day I thought it best to focus on the breadth and depth of American tunes. And what a catalog that includes, everything from work and protest songs to the Great American Song Book, rock and roll, folk and jazz! What a trip to go deep into this vein of music and treat it creatively and with respect.

Second, the music making has always been collaborative. Sometimes that means bringing the audience directly into the singing by teaching them parts or printing lyrics or simply inviting their harmonies. Most often it has meant that those who are performing are committed to working together to make music that is beautiful and fun. And there is a sense of collaboration with the wider community, too as these events have always been fund-raisers.

In a culture that venerates individuality, I see these concerts as gentle protests against the status quo reminding us how important it is to work and play together for the common good. Others seem to resonate with the community-building through music vision, too. I think of Jack Waldheim's concert for Habitat for Humanity, the recent "Last Waltz" concert in Great Barrington that supports music education in the Middle East as well as Andy Kelly's Sister City Jazz Ambassadors.

And third, these concerts have always embraced three levels of musical ability so that everybody can be a part of the party. There are big group songs where everyone is welcome; there are small ensembles that demand greater practice and skill; and there are individual artists sharing their gifts with verve and splendor. I am a big believer that each level of participation is important. Each is different and each requires careful appreciation, but they all help us experience, even if we don't consciously understand, how compassionate living brings healing and hope to our world. In a world designed to celebrate only the professionals, our concerts offer an alternative that honors both the grassroots and high standards.

These events are not technically "spiritual" except that they rely on the celebration of truth, goodness and beauty -- and those are the historic expressions of spirituality. Nevertheless, no matter how we express our deeper commitments -- if at all -- these Thanksgiving Eve concerts make my heart sing and I am grateful to you who join in with such enthusiasm.


This year's guest artists will include Linda Worster, Rebecca Leigh, Grahm Sturz, Bert Marshall, Ethan Wesley and Hal Lefferts, along with Between the Banks and a few surprises. The concert to raise emergency fuel assistance funds for Berkshire residents takes place at First Church on Park Square (27 East Street, Pittsfield) at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 27.

Somebody recently asked me if we still needed their guitar in our mix? All I could think of is "yes" -- we may already have a guitar army, but your sound and smile and presence makes us all so much the better. So the more the merrier.

James Lumsden is pastor, First Church on Park Square.


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