Major holidays have deep bonds in the rock-pop canon that extend beyond familiar cross-generational hits and hymns. Independence Day has Dave Alvin’s “Fourth of July”; Labor Day has Merle Haggard’s “Working Man Blues”; Thanksgiving has Arlo Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant”; and Christmas and Valentine’s Day have damn near everything else.
What about the lesser-known holidays that most of us don’t get off from work, commemorations that still deserve significant music? A survey of the calendar reveals that even alternative days of celebration have rock-pop songs that speak directly to their themes.
Presidents’ Day usually finds music in attack mode, from Bob Dylan’s famous ’60s line, “Even the president of the United States must sometimes have to stand naked,” to early ’90s rap protests like “Bush Killa” by Paris and “Arrest the President” by Intelligent Hoodlum, to this year’s surprise rocker “Let’s Impeach the President” by Neil Young.
The respectful exception is Dion’s 1968 classic “Abraham, Martin and John,” notable of course for its inclusion of nonpresident Martin Luther King Jr. Indeed, of the year’s early holidays that honor male leaders, Martin Luther King Day offers the richest songs. There’s the wealth of folk and gospel material associated with the Civil Rights movement, as well as numerous ’60s soul hits like the Impressions’ “People Get Ready” and Sly and the Family Stone’s “Everyday People” inspired by King’s message.
King’s vision of a nonjudgmental future finds an unusual advocate in country star Marty Stuart, whose 1992 track “The King of Dixie” makes no reference to race yet challenges its white audience to imagine King as a source of the most worthy Southern virtues.
Mother’s Day and Father’s Day songs are a contrast. With the exception of John Lennon’s scalding “Mother,” the rock-pop canon holds wholesome affection for Mom’s advice (Smokey Robinson’s “Shop Around”) and comfort (Etta James’ “Tell Mama”). Tupac repeats the lyric “You are appreciated” over and over in his 1996 classic “Dear Mama,” a hit that kick-started a flood of rap songs in which tough, young thugs praise the virtues and beauty of their strong single moms.
Dad’s music isn’t so easy. Harry Chapin’s “Cat’s in the Cradle” is only one familiar example. Bruce Springsteen wrestles with father/son issues across a half dozen or more of his early songs, notably the savage scorcher “Adam Raised a Cain” and the more resolute and resigned portraits “Factory” and “Independence Day.”
Dad himself gets a sensitive, conflicted voice on the fragile “My Boy” by ’80s indie rockers Thelonius Monster. Kid Rock’s roaring rap-rocker “My Oedipus Complex” alternates complex song segments where both father and son apologize, make excuses and vent. “Son, I said I’m sorry / Still you resent me so,” says Rock Sr., knowing Father’s Day isn’t the resolution he seeks.
Christianity and Judaism both have holidays that initiate periods of reflection and accountability to God. Ash Wednesday is a solemn Christian day that starts the disciplined 40 days of Lent preceding the spring joy of Easter. Rosh Hashanah marks the Jewish New Year, the beginning of the 10 Days of Awe that extend to Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. These are times when one stands naked before a higher power, repenting of earthly shortcomings in hopes of another chance.
The soul of these holy days is heard in Charlie Rich’s nondenominational honky-tonk spiritual “Feel Like Going Home.” On Rich’s swan song, 1991’s Pictures and Paintings, the song is smooth and mature, but his solo demo from nearly 20 years earlier is devastating. Pounding sad piano chords alone in some small room, Rich can be heard sighing heavily, confessing like a prodigal son that “I’ve tried and I’ve failed / And I’m tired and weary / Everything I’ve done is wrong.”
Finally, Boxing Day, the day after Christmas, is mistakenly known as a day that members of the British Commonwealth box and return unwanted gifts. The holiday actually refers in part to a tradition of giving boxes full of necessities to the poor. Does this make it a holiday suited to ’90s alt-band the Boxing Gandhis? A cheap pick, yes, but you don’t want to hear my choices for Columbus Day and Flag Day.