One of the most enduring of American religious songs is "Simple Gifts." This Shaker song has been sung almost everywhere. The Copland arrangement of "Simple Gifts" is especially popular. It has been sung at two Presidential Inaugurations: by Jessye Norman for Ronald Reagan's in 1985 and by Marilyn Horne for Bill Clinton's in 1993. In 1996, the Music Educators National Conference named "Simple Gifts" as one of the forty-two songs that every American should know, yet many American specialists still don't know the origin of this famous song. Certainly Aaron Copland didn't when he came across the tune and used it so effectively in two of his major works: the ballet Appalachian Spring (1944) and Old American Songs, First Set (1950). Who then actually wrote this Shaker song?
Joseph Brackett, Jr. was born in Cumberland, Maine, in 6 May 1797. His birth name Elisha was changed to his father's first name after the family joined the Shaker community in Gorham, Maine. His father's farm property formed the nucleus of this new Shaker community. In 1819, Joseph Sr. and the other Shakers moved to Poland Hill, Maine, where he remained until his death on 27 July 1838. Joseph Jr. served as first minister of the Maine Shaker societies, as well as Church Elder at New Gloucester, now known as Sabbathday Lake, until his death on 4 July 1882.1 His portrait has hung for many years in the music room of the Central Brick Dwelling at Sabbathday Lake, where the remaining few Shakers still operate a farm and museum.
Because he was primarily involved with church leadership, Brackett didn't compose many tunes. Two, however, have become known in our century, thanks to modern arrangements. "The True Vine," composed at New Gloucester, Maine, in 1856, was first arranged by Conrad Held and appeared in his collection, Fifteen Shaker Songs (G. Schirmer, 1944). "Simple Gifts" was very popular among the Shaker communities and was copied in over a dozen of their music manuscript volumes. The evidence in these manuscripts indicates that the tune was most likely composed during the early summer (possibly in June) of 1848 at the Shaker community in Alfred, Maine.
The Shakers had three basic categories of choral music: anthem, hymn, and song. "Simple Gifts" has often been incorrectly classified as a hymn. Shaker anthems were similar in structure to those composed by earlier New England composers such as William Billings and Jacob French. Although Shaker hymns and songs have similar tune structures, they may be differentiated by their texts, hymns having two or more stanzas as text. As "Simple Gifts" has only one stanza, it should be classified as a song. In addition, in several Shaker music manuscripts, it is identified as a "Dancing Song" or as a "Quick Dance."2 The text in the second half of the song even indicates dance movements:
To turn, turn, will be our delight,
'Till by turning, turning,
we come round right
Aaron Copland didn't have any of this information when he chose the tune for his ballet score. As he stated in 1980, he chose the Shaker song only because he as "particularly fond of it [the melody]," not for its historical significance or textual content.3 He found the song in Edward Deming Andrews's The Gift to be Simple Songs, Dances and Rituals of the American Shakers in a public library near Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. His appealing variations on "Simple Gifts" in Appalachian Spring have since helped to spread the Shaker song worldwide. Four years later, he set the song again in his Old American Songs, for voice and piano. The five songs in this set were first recorded by tenor Peter Pears, with piano accompaniment by the distinguished composer and friend of Copland, Benjamin Britten.4 The songs were transcribed for chorus by composer Irving Fine in 1952.
Over the years, other arrangements of this Shaker song have been made. A completely new song based on the Shaker tune, titled "Lord of the Dance," was published in 1963, with five stanzas of text written by English poet and songwriter Sydney Carter. Although Carter had admitted using the Shaker tune as the basis for his arrangement, Michael Flatley, in his recent dance extravaganza of the same name, credits only Roman Hardiman.
It is timely that on the bicentennial of Joseph Brackett's birth, we remember him for his famous song. The opening words convey his message so directly:
'Tis the gift to be simple,
'Tis the gift to be free,
'Tis the gift to come down
where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves
in the place just right
'Twill be in the valley
of love and delight.
Such a message seems to speak to those looking for a simpler way of life in our hectic, high-tech world, but this song was really intended to accompany the vigorous dance movement that the Shakers called "laboring," or a religious "exercise." Even though Brackett's song may be quaintly worded, it wasn't meant to be sung as a lethargic lullaby as heard sometimes these days. His "Simple Gifts" was made for some "delight," with Shakers dancing with great gusto, till they turned "round right."
"Simple Gifts" in the 20th Century
1937: First modern printing of "Simple Gifts" in "Shaker Songs" by Edward Deming Andrews (1894-1964), in The Musical Quarterly (October 1937); identified incorrectly as "probably first sung at Hancock about 1849."
1940: Edward Deming Andrews presented a different version of 'Simple Gifts" in his book The Gift to be Simple, mentioning that one manuscript states the song was "composed by the Alfred Ministry, June 28, 1848."
1944: Aaron Copland's five variations on "Simple Gifts" in the ballet score to Appalachian Spring. Copland found the Shaker tune in the Andrews book from 1940.
1950: Aaron Copland arranges the Shaker song again in his first set of Old American Songs, for voice and piano.
1952: Copland's friend, Irving Fine (1914-1962), creates a two-part choral setting of Copland's arrangement.
1963: "Lord of the Dance" is composed by Sydney Carter, based on the "Simple Gifts" tune. Carter wrote his own words for this song.
1967: Biographical information about Elder Joseph Brackett Jr. is published by Sister R. Mildred Barker in "History of Union Branch, Gorham, Maine, 1784-1819," The Shaker Quarterly (Summer 1967). He is identified as the composer of "Simple Gifts."
1970: Popular arrangement of the Shaker song by Judy Collins for her recording Whales and Nightingales.
1979: "Simple Gifts" identified as a "gift song" in Daniel W. Patterson's book, The Shaker Spiritual, 372-373.
1980: Article about song's origin in The Shaker Messenger magazine (Winter 1980). Manuscript version of the song claims it is "Dancing Song - From Alfred 1858. Learned of Eld. Joseph's Company."
1985: Copland's arrangement of "Simple Gifts" sung by opera singer Jessye Norman for the second inauguration of President Ronald Reagan in 1985.
1987: First edition of The Story of Simple Gifts.
1990: Interview with Aaron Copland published in The Sonneck Society Bulletin for American Music, vol. 16, no. 3 (Fall 1990), page 106.
1993: Copland's arrangement of "Simple Gifts" sung by Marilyn Horne at the inauguration of President Bill Clinton in Washington, DC on January 22. This same arrangement was sung by Jessye Norman for the second inauguration of President Ronald Reagan in 1985.
1994: A radio and television commercial uses Copland's arrangement of "Simple Gifts" for the new Oldsmobile Aurora.
1996: Music Educators National Conference lists "Simple Gifts" as one of 42 songs that "all Americans should know."
1997: "Simple Gifts" listed as the number one Shaker song on the "List of Top Twelve Tunes" recorded between 1960 and 1995 (A Guide to Shaker Music, 2nd revised edition).
1. Sister R. Mildred Barker, "History of Union Branch, Gorham, Maine," The Shaker Quarterly, VII/2 (Summer 1967), 72-73.
2. Roger Hall, The Story of Simple Gifts: Shaker Simplicity in Song (Holland, Michigan: The World of Shaker, 3rd Edition, 1992), 3.
3. Roger Hall, The Sonneck Society Bulletin 16, no. 3 (Fall 1990), 107.
4. Recorded on September 29, 1950. For more information, see "Aaron Copland's Simple Gifts" in Joy of Angels: Shaker Spirituals for Christmas and the New York (Rochester, New York: Sampler Records, Ltd., 1995), 59.
Roger L. Hall is a composer, lecturer, musicologist, producer, singer, teacher, and, since 1971, one of the foremost experts on Shaker music. Hall received his BA degree in 1970 from Rutgers University, and a MA in ethnomusicology from The State University of New York at Binghamton. His Master's Thesis was on the Shaker letteral music notation. Between 1981 and 1996, he transcribed and edited 56 Shaker tunes for The Shaker Messenger. He has also written for Shakers World.