“Tis the gift to be simple, tis the gift to be free.” That has to be the best known line of any Shaker song. Many people change the wording a bit when they sing the song and say “Tis a gift to be simple,” but that little change of the to a does make a difference in the meaning of the song. To me it seems to change the gift from one that is given to one we can choose.
The lyrics and music were written in 1848 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 set my Shaker book, The Blessed, during that odd period of Shaker history.
A Shaker Song that Went into the World
I’m not sure if this elder felt that divine inspiration, but whatever his inspiration, his song has come to represent Shaker music. Then, as the years passed, the song went beyond the Shaker villages and headed out into the “world.” The song began its rise to popularity in 1944 when it was used by Aaron Copland in the ballet Appalachian Spring. Many listen to the tune and think it has a Celtic background. With its lyrical sound, it’s easy to imagine someone playing the song on a flute as they dance across green fields. Of course, the Shakers didn’t have musical instruments in their worship 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 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 TV (Little House on the Prairie) 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.
The song has gone off to school and been a popular piece for various schools’ drum corps and marching bands including the West Virginia Mountaineer Marching Band. The Shakers might have liked the idea of people marching to their song since many of their dances were marches. While singing this particular song about the gift to be simple, they bowed and turned as they danced and sang. The song is one the historical interpreters use when they demonstrate the Shaker worship at the Pleasant Hill Shaker Village here in Kentucky.
Songs were shared between Shaker villages and this is one that was popular with all the Shakers. Now if you would like to actually hear the song sung as the Shakers might have sung it, you can click on this link, Simple Gifts, to take you to a beautiful rendition of the original song by gospel singer, Jeannie Mummert. It’s not quite two minutes long and is without musical accompaniment just as the Shakers would have sung it. Of course, some of them would have been bowing and bending while they sang. Enjoy.
(Some of this information was published in a previous post in 2012 here on One Writer’s Journal.)
Giveaway is Ongoing – What is a simple gift?
You still have time to throw your name in my giveaway hat for a chance to win a copy of my new Shaker book, The Innocent, or your choice of one of my other books. All you have to do is leave a comment here (with a way to contact you, please) about what you would consider a simple gift or at least a good gift to have. You must be eighteen to enter. Deadline is midnight August 1, 2015, and I’ll pick three winners by random drawing and announce them here on August 2nd. If you’ve already left a comment on a previous post, that’s great. Leave another here and get an additional entry. That will improve your chances of winning!