Simple Gifts – A Shaker Song that Went out into the World

Ann H Gabhart One Writer's Journal 22 Comments

Simple Gifts SimpleGifts

“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!

Comments 22

  1. Diana Flowers

    I loved the song — thank you for sharing! Simple gifts that are so special to me are usually the ones given me by my gkids. Handmade cards, pictures they draw just for me, and homemade ice cream in a toy bowl!…made out of play dough of course. 😀 Priceless.

    dianalflowers(at)aol(dot)com

  2. Loretta Shumpert

    There are a lot of simple gifts. Fixing someone a simple meal is a “big thing” to the one who gets it. Something to let someone know that they’re being thought of; I know that I would also like that gift.

    1. Post
      Author
      Ann H Gabhart

      You are so right, Loretta. Caring enough to fix a meal or take a dish to someone sick or just overworked is a sweet thing. We do so often take for granted our family members who give us those simple gifts.

  3. Edward Arrington

    Spending time together with a loved one is a simple gift that can mean more than something that costs a Loy of money.
    Grandaddya at Comcast dot net

    1. Post
      Author
      Ann H Gabhart

      Time. I agree, Edward, that seems a simple gift but sometimes it’s a hard one for us to give. Taking time to just sit and listen or to do or go somewhere our loved one likes that maybe we don’t enjoy as much. So many ways we can give our time.

    1. Post
      Author
      Ann H Gabhart

      That’s a great simple gift, Lillian. And sometimes it’s a gift NOT to share those pictures of us that make us cringe, right?

  4. Laurie Bergh

    A simple gift is more about time and thoughtfullness than money. Like maybe a note of appreciation, maybe a baked item , maybe just spending some time with someone.

    1. Post
      Author
      Ann H Gabhart

      All great simple gifts, Laurie. Even a word of appreciation can mean a lot, but the note takes it one step farther and shows you really cared. What we pay for a gift doesn’t matter nearly as much as choosing something we know a person will truly like.

  5. Pauline Cotton Osborne

    I think a simple gift might be sharing something you may have with someone else like a piece of candy.
    I enjoy many simple things in life from nature such as seeing the birds and flowers.

    1. Post
      Author
      Ann H Gabhart

      I like those simple things too, Pauline. Sometimes we reach for what we consider is the impressive gift when that favorite candy bar or mint might be the very thing to touch someone’s heart. And you know how much I like my birds and flowers.

  6. Rachel Lepree

    We just sang this hymn at church this past Sunday!! A simple gift is the gift of friendship. As an only child with no children, my friends are my lifeline. Rachel

    1. Post
      Author
      Ann H Gabhart

      How timely is that, Rachel! It is a beautiful song. But did you bend and turn as you sang it? Friendship is a beautiful simple gift and one that we all need.

    1. Post
      Author
      Ann H Gabhart

      A gift wrapped in love. That’s a beautiful thought, Ola. I’m sure you’ve given and received some of those simple gifts.

    1. Post
      Author
  7. Deana Dick

    A simple gift to me is a nice card from someone saying how much they appreciate you. We don’t tell people enough how important they are to us and we have slipped away from the personal touch of handwriting a note . That would be a treasure I would always keep. It may be simple, but it is priceless.
    Deana
    Jhdwayne@peoplepc.com

    1. Post
      Author
      Ann H Gabhart

      You are so right, Deana. A handwritten note gets rarer each day, but who among us doesn’t like to see a note or card with our address on it in our mailboxes? I like writing notes and I like getting notes. Cards are fun, but sometimes if there’s no personal note, they aren’t as much fun. We love connecting with other people. That’s why I like it so much when I get to talk to all of you here on my blog.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *