Simple Gifts

Ann H Gabhart Ann's Posts, One Writer's Journal

My editor e-mailed me with some questions about the Shaker song, “Simple Gifts” this week and that got me to thinking about the song. “Tis the gift to be simple, tis the gift to be free” is probably the best known line of a Shaker hymn. Many people sing it incorrectly as “Tis a gift to be simple,” but that little change of the to a makes a world of difference in the meaning of the song. The lyrics and music were written in 1948 by Shaker Elder Joseph Brackett of the Sabbathday Lake Village during what the Shakers called an “Era of Manifestations” or “Mother’s Work.” During this time many Shakers received what they considered “gift” songs from the spiritual realm. I’m not sure if this elder felt that divine inspiration, but his song has certainly come to represent Shaker music. But it’s gone farther than that. It began its rise to popularity in the “world” in 1944 when it was used by Aaron Copland in the ballet Appalachian Spring. Many who hear the song think it has a Celtic background. It does have a very lyrical sound and you can almost imagine someone playing the song on a flute as they dance across green fields. Of course the Shakers didn’t have musical instruments until very late in their history. Their voices were their musical instruments.”Simple Gifts” has been adapted and arranged many times over the years. You sometimes see the song with two additional verses that were not of part of the Shaker song. Perhaps the best known adaptation of the tune is Sydney Carter’s “Lord of the Dance” in 1966. But it’s been on t.v. (Little House on the Praire) and in the political realm too. John Williams incorporated the tune into “Air and Simple Gifts” that was performed at President Obama’s inauguration in 2009. It’s gone off to school and been a popular piece for various schools’ drum corps and marching bands including the WV Mountaineer Marching Band. The Shakers might have liked the idea of people marching to their song since many of their dances were marches. In this one they bowed and turned as they danced and sang. It is one of the songs the historical interpreters use when they demonstrate the Shaker worship at Pleasant Hill, the Shaker Village near where I live. Popular songs were shared between villages and this is one sung by all the villages. So now you know more than you probably ever wanted to know about a Shaker song, but for fun you can click on the video above and listen to a beautiful rendition of the original words and tune by Judy Collins. Enjoy. I may post a different video of the song on my Facebook page. Come on over and join my page. I post something at least once a day. You can just search for Ann H Gabhart and look for my author page or click on it from the Facebook symbol on this blog or my website. Talk to you again on Sunday. Oh yeah, and to the winners of the birthday celebration giveaway, your books are in the mail. Except Amy’s. She still hasn’t gotten into touch with me.