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"Over the River and Through the Woods"

History of an American folk song

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photo: Getty
"Over the River and Through the Woods" is widely known as one of the most beloved songs about Thanksgiving, but few know the origins of the song.

First published in 1844, "Over the River and Through the Woods" was a poem written by Lydia Marie Child - a poet and novelist (and quite the advocate for emancipation of slaves). Child published the poem in a collection for children titled Flowers for Children, Vol. 2.

Lyrics for "Over the River and Through the Woods"

The song "Over the River and Through the Woods" is a song about taking a trip to visit grandparents and other family members on Thanksgiving day. The narrative of the lyrics celebrates the long journey there, the snow and the animals the family passes along the way. The narrator seems to be a child, though that's not explicit, and it spends about a dozen verses anticipating the joy and familial communing which will take place around the Thanksgiving table.

Though the original includes twelve verses, many of them are overlooked these days, in current versions. Among those overlooked verses are some such as:

Over the river, and through the wood,
to see little John and Ann;
We will kiss them all, and play snowball
and stay as long as we can.

Over the river, and through the wood-
Old Jowler hears our bells;
He shakes his paw with a loud bow-wow,
and thus the news he tells.

Traditional verses of "Over the River and Through the Woods"

Despite the numerous verses which express excitement about different aspects of the Thanksgiving journey (the behavior of the horses and dogs, the games they'll play when they arrive, the cold and snow along the way, etc.), most children and adults these days stick to one or all of the following three verses:

Over the river, and through the wood,
to Grandfather's house we go;
the horse knows the way to carry the sleigh
through the white and drifted snow.

Over the river, and through the wood
oh, how the wind does blow!
It stings the toes and bites the nose,
as over the ground we go.

Over the river, and through the wood,
trot fast my dapple gray
Spring over the ground like a hunting-hound
Hurray for Thanksgiving Day.

Sometimes the lyrics are changed to reflect a Christmas spirit - rather than singing "Hurray for Thanksgiving day," for example, the lyrics would change to "Hurray for Christmas day."

Recordings of "Over the River and Through the Woods"

At this point "Over the River and Through the Woods" has achieved what could be considered ultimate folk song status. Since very few famous folk singers or groups have recorded the song, it's fame and proliferation has been served primarily through oral tradition over the past century or more.

The song appears on a number of recordings for children, though there's nothing specific about the melody or lyricism which indicate it's a song intended only for children. Granted it was originally in a collection of poetry for children, but many Christmas songs originally intended for children ("Jingle Bells," for example) are frequently included on albums for adults. So, the tune's appearance on children's recordings and not those specifically intended for adults is not easily explained. Perhaps this is because adults don't typically sing Thanksgiving songs - surprising, considering the holiday is focused on community gathering and merriment. Nonetheless, the song has been done quite a bit of justice via the following recordings:

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