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"We Gather Together"

History of an American folk song


photo: Getty
Most people these days - especially in the United States - would consider "We Gather Together" as sort of a theme song about the American Thanksgiving holiday. The song, however, predates what's popularly considered the first American Thanksgiving celebration.

A Note About Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is a holiday which supposedly honors a celebratory feast held in Plymouth, Mass., in 1621, though there's historical evidence that fall harvest celebrations took place throughout the previous half-century on "American" soil. The celebratory feast was held to mark a particularly bountiful harvest, the result of collaboration with local natives. The Plymouth settlers worked in congress with the natives that year to learn local farming techniques and crops which would be sure to hold in local soil. The local natives also taught the settlers how to fish nearby waters.

To celebrate the alliance between European settlers and natives, however tenuous and transitory that alliance proved to be, this annual harvest festival took place over the ensuing decades. It wasn't until 1941 that Thanksgiving became an official holiday in the US by federal legislation (it had been celebrated for nearly a century at that point under decree of the President). That Congress legislated the holiday in 1941 is an interesting note, considering it was during the thick of the second World War, as the US was still recovering from its Great Depression.

The Lyrics of "We Gather Together"

The song "We Gather Together" was written in 1597 (during the Elizabethan era of madrigals) by Dutch writer Adrianus Valerius. Written to commemorate a military victory over the Spanish - the Dutch were in an independence battle against the Spanish - Valerius's poem was set to the tune of an old Dutch folk song. Given the political climate of the Netherlands at the time, the song was originally intended as a hymn of defiance against the Spanish King who had decreed that Dutch protestants were not permitted to worship together.

It wasn't until 1903 that "We Gather Together" appeared in an American hymnal, with a translation done by American musicologist Theodore Baker. Baker's translation included the following verses:

We gather together
to ask the Lord's blessing;
he chastens and hastens
his will to make known.
The wicked oppressing
now cease from distressing.
Sing praises to his name,
he forgets not his own.

It's the song's third verse which retains much of that original Dutch defiance, however:

We all do extol thee,
thou leader triumphant,
and pray that thou still
our defender wilt be.
Let thy congregation
escape tribulation;
thy name be ever praised!
O Lord, make us free!

Given the full text to "We Gather Together," it's interesting that this particular hymn has become a touchstone of the Thanksgiving holiday. Granted, its cries of freedom and community embody much of the spirit upon which America eventually would fight its own revolution for freedom. And, considering the Pilgrims responsible for the traditional first Thanksgiving story were escaping religious persecution, a quest for freedom and community was necessary. Still, modern day Thanksgiving is hardly a holiday tied closely to American freedom. Instead, it has come to be a celebration of bounty and togetherness, making only the song's title line the most appropriate for Thanksgiving revelry. (Nowadays we have plenty of other US holidays during which we focus on American freedoms.)

Who Has Recorded "We Gather Together"?

Much like other popular Thanksgiving songs, "We Gather Together" hasn't been recorded by many famous folksingers; instead, it's been passed down through churches and oral traditions. It's been recorded by a number of choruses. Here's a recording by the Sunset Choir (purchase/download) and one by the Quincy Choral Society (purchase/download).

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