Playlist for a Polarized America for Thanksgiving and Beyond

Can our divided America reach across the table? Let's use a playlist and find out.


These 12 post-election months have been especially exhausting. Directly following 2016’s up-swell in divisiveness resulting in the presidency of Donald J. Trump, America fell into the arms of a Thanksgiving season. This year, once again we Americans gather with family and friends for Thanksgiving, joining in gratitude around the traditions surrounding food and football — often failing to appropriately acknowledge the ancestral lands and unceded territories on which our tables stand — while avoiding all politics in our table talk.

The avoidance strategy is often advocated for familial health during the holidays. We don’t want to offend or ruin the goodness the days could hold. No space should be made for divisive rhetoric and conversation. There’s no room for that, especially during the holidays.

Yet I believe 2017 Thanksgiving is different than 2016, with a more hopeful chance for bipartisanism. Americans are tired but a bit more open and empathic. It’s time to reach across the table. Whereas we might not be ready to talk boldly on politics with our friends and families, we have an opportunity to broach a few subjects for the common good while we are together in good spirits. And I suggest music — a playlist — to be the appropriate tool.

Story continues below.

Music crosses genre and content boundaries all the time, despite tastes and preferences and prejudices. For example, I often stereotype country music as being inauthentically patriotic, with other common themes such as hetero-romance, slowing down and dead-dog woes. In actuality, country music often calls out social issues and advocates for justice. As my friend, acclaimed artist avery r. young explained to me:

Social commentary has always been present in country music. It is American music that speaks to many things that has happened and happens on American soil.

In my posts for CFR, I usually aim to spur awareness and connection beyond American borders; this time I am reaching across the aisle, across the dial, across the family table. With this post I am offering to mine, and all politically polarized American families, this playlist for the holidays — available on Spotify. The songs on the playlist were each chosen because they unearth important discomforts in a comfortable manner, describe a bold vision we all should hear, or shift the narrative in a human way.

My family is based in mid-Michigan and votes both red and blue. This is what I plan to say to my own family before clicking the “play” button on the playlist:

Our family is growing together this year. I have some music to be the backdrop. Simply listen when you can and leave space for each of us to garnish both empathy and agency inspired by the music or the conversation that grows from it.

Sit in the innate love we have for one another. Remember that friends and family members may have faced bias and discrimination because they recently immigrated, are female, ALAANA (African, Latinx, Asian, Arab and Native American), LGBTQIA, facing financial struggle, lost a job, never found a job, experiencing homelessness, or live with a physical or learning disabilities or mental illness. We hold all of us dear. We will listen.

Please note that while some of the lyric content of a few songs is leaning toward PG13 in maturity, all tracks included in the playlist are clean, radio-edit versions. Intentionally, the playlist is an odd mixed tape of country, pop, hip hop, rap, folk, House and more from artists who represent an array of perspectives. Enjoy the journey.

Story continues below.

My role for this playlist was curator. Suggested contributions were made by Dave Bell, Kim Carballo, Melanie Cooley, Jason Delgatto, Marian Dolan, Nora Dunlop, Bob French, Dave Johnson, Jillian Kong-Sivert, ‎Julie Marie Lhanang, Amanda Leigh Lichtenstein, N.W. Long, Emily Nehus, Carol Quirke, Emily Reigh, Laurie Rich, Laura Sáenz, Michael J. Szanto, Kaitlin Torrance, Kathryn Tulk Cousins and avery r. young.

The Uncomfortable Truth — Nneka
“Let us turn the page, Let us change a way”
Songwriters: Nneka Lucia Egbuna and Farhad Samadzada

Six White Horses — Tommy Cash
“Some preach wrong and some preach right and some preach love and some preach fight. Takes every kind to make that world go round”

We Want Peace (Reloaded) — Emmanuel Jal
by former child soldier turned acclaimed recording artist.

Deportee — The Highwaymen
Songwriters: Woody Guthrie and Martin Hoffman

White Man’s World — Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit
“There’s no such thing as someone else’s war
Your creature comforts aren’t the only things worth fighting for
You’re still breathing, it’s not too late
We’re all carrying one big burden, sharing one fate”

Change — Joy Denalane featuring Lupe Fiasco
“If we don’t do it for us, We gotta do it for our kids
So they don’t gotta re-live”

Only in America — Brooks & Dunn
“One kid dreams of fame and fortune
One kid helps pay the rent
One could end up going to prison
One just might be president”
Songwriters: Randall Jay Rogers, Kix Brooks, Don Cook

The Fight — Taboo
“There’s so much joy, why don’t we feel it?
There’s so much pain, oh can we heal it?
The fight is never ours alone
We’re all in this together”
Taboo is a musician, cancer survivor and Native American activist with Shoshone Tribe heritage. He’s also a member of the Black Eyed Peas.

What It Means — Drive-By Truckers
“But the core is something rotten
And we’re standing on the precipice
Of prejudice and fear
We trust science just as long
As it tells us what we want to hear”

Everybody Got Their Something — Nikka Costa
“People keeping score
Say better hurry up and get yours
Cause somebody else get your spot
Before you even dropped
Busy holding on
So the roof don’t fly”
Songwriters: James Brown, Bobby Byrd, Ronald R. Lenhoff, Nikka Costa, Justin M. Stanley

I Would Like to Call It Beauty — Corrine Bailey Rae
“Oh I would like to call, call it beauty,
Strained as love’s become, it still amazes me”
Songwriters: Rae Corinne Jacqueline Bailey, Philip Joseph Rae

Be — Common
“I look into my daughter’s eyes
And realize I’ma learn through her…
If I’ma do it, I gotta change the world through her…
When drunk nights get remembered more than sober ones
The present is a gift, and I just wanna be”
Written by Choker Campbell, Lonnie Rashid Lynn, Kanye West, Kanye Omari West

Duerme — Josh Rouse
“Do not cry, baby
Your mom is in the field
She is going to bring a gift
I know it”
Songwriters: Josh Rouse and Brad Jones

Girl In A Country Song — Maddie and Tae
“How in the world did it go so wrong?
Like all we’re good for
Is looking good for you and your friends on the weekend”

Wiyathul — Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu
Born blind, Yunupingu is an Indigenous Australian musician who sings in the Yolngu language.

The One On the Right Is On the Left — Johnny Cash
“They performed with great virtuosity
And soon they were the rage
But political animosity prevailed upon the stage”

El arado — Victor Jara
“I strongly affirm hope
when I think of the other star.
It is never late, she tells me.
The dove will fly.”

Follow Your Arrow — Kacey Musgraves
“Say what you feel
Love who you love
‘Cause you just get
So many trips ’round the sun”
Songwriters: Brandy Lynn Clark, Kacey Musgraves, Shane McAnally

Workin On — Colt Ford
“Laughing at myself, admitting when I’m wrong
That’s what this gold ol’ boy’s gonna go out workin’ on”
Songwriters: John Douglas Waterman, Walker Hayes

Story continues below.

If and when your family gathering needs to stop the political talk and lean towards gratitude and joy, here’s a perfect avoidance strategy playlist.

If you have more time, I recommend listening to the following additional tracks:
We Shall Be Free Garth Brooks
Skip a Rope Henson Cargill
Don’t Touch My Hair Solange
Los Caminos de la Vida La Tropa Vallenata
Paradise John Prine
Jesus Was A Capricorn Kris Kristofferson (Owed To John Prine)
It wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels Kitty Wells
Just Because I’m a Woman Dolly Parton
Mama Tried Merle Haggerd
The Pill Loretta Lynn
Black Lung Hazel Dickens
Sueños de esperanza Mollicone

Also check out the following artists:
Daniel Valenzuela
Mercedes Sosa
Sylvio Rodriquez
Sara Al Agha
Sturgill Simpson
Willie Nelson
Lucinda Williams
Pete Seeger
Ruben Blades
Bob Dylan
Lila Downs

Keep sharing your own musical suggestions. Hear one another. And have a wonderful Thanksgiving.