|Simple Gifts Liner Notes
Ann Lee (1736-1784), raised in the slums of Manchester, England, was an unlettered young woman of powerful religious convictions, who became acknowledged as the leader of a small group of Dissenters known as the "Shaking Quakers"because of the way they trembled when seized with the Holy Spirit. Ann had a revelation that carnal relations were the root of all the world's troubles and preached celibacy and confession of sin. While in prison for her radical beliefs, Ann received a message from God to go to America, which she did, with eight followers, in 1774. Six years later they bought a tract of land near Albany, New York, where they lived communally.
Fueled by the religious revival of the late 18th century, the charismatic Mother Ann's new sect began to attract converts throughout New England, but also brought down brutal persecution and imprisonment on her head, leading to her premature death at the age of 48.
The organization of the Shakers into communities of Families, governed by a lead ministry of both men and women, was brought about by American converts Joseph Meacham (1742-1796) and Lucy Wright (1760-1821). Shakerism spread as far west as Kentucky, north to Ohio and the New England states, reaching its zenith of 6,000 members in 19 colonies of varying sizes in the years before the Civil War, but by the 1840s no new successful communities were established. Edward Deming Andrews in The Gift to be Simple describes their fellowship as "literally following the example of the primitive apostolic church: men and women living together in celibate purity, holding all goods in common, working industriously with their hands, speaking and singing in unknown tongues, worshipping joyfully, preaching that Christ had actually come to lead believers to a perfect, sinless, everlasting life -- the life of the spirit..." Though its heyday is long over, the Shakers' experiment in primitive Christianity and communalism was nevertheless one of the most successful and influential religious movements in American history, and survives triumphantly in its legacy of art, crafts and music.
Excerpted from The Shaker Spiritual by Daniel W. Patterson
Shaker music was shaped by the conscious and unconscious preferences of the Anglo-American folk singer. These were powerful enough at times to override even Biblical precedents. The first Shakers, for example, often likened their singing to that of the virgin company of the Lamb which John saw in vision standing on Mount Zion singing a new song with the voice of harpers harping on their harps. The Shakers went so far as to sing new songs in tongues no man could learn, but they did not become harpers harping. Instead they held fast to traditional unaccompanied song. Their stated reasons were that the World had used instruments "to excite lasciviousness, and to invite and stimulate men to destroy each others' lives," but the Shakers did not even permit the most blameless instruments within their villages. They were convinced that "the best and in fact the only proper instrument is the human voice wholly devoted to God in sounding forth prayer and praise."
Anglo-American folk tradition preferred not only unaccompanied by also monophonic song, and the Shakers, too, insisted on singing in unison. This was common practice among folky groups like the Shakers, Baptists, and Methodists. They could hardly countenance musical literacy as a prerequisite for salvation. But as other churches crept gradually into more elegant musical tastes, the Shakers came to regard their own monophonic song as a badge of their separation from the World. As long as the Shakers held an essentially folk outlook they resisted part-song. It was not until the 1870s that the Shakers began to purchase organs and pianos, get music teachers from the World, study the songbooks of other denominations, and regularly compose hymns with four-part harmony.
The Shakers had another, deeper reason for resisting the use of instruments and part-singing. They believed the direct result of introducing elaborate instrumental music into a church had always been to "induce a lifeless form." They wanted no class of professional performers usurping the Believer's musical expression of his devotion, for in a Shaker service "each one for one" sought "that power of God that alone saves the soul from sin." They needed songs that even indifferently gifted singers could "unite in," one "substantial, not given to great extremes, forcible, clear & plain."
For good reason the Shakers took many tunes directly from secular folk song, a fact sophisticated visitors rarely failed to notice. One dance, tune, said an English gentleman who attended a service at Lebanon in 1838, was a song "I had not heard for thirty years at least," though it was popular "in my boyhood, among sailors, especially," The Shakers rarely borrowed or made over the words of one of the World's songs, but they were quite conscious in the early years of making use of common tunes.
Later generations of Shakers came to regard their songs as wholly unique, tunes and all. Increasing numbers were raised in the Society from childhood, either because their parents were converts or after 1834 because they were orphans accepted as wards. These members found the Society possessed of a body of songs and had little knowledge of their background or of the World's music. Their understanding of the songs was bolstered on occasions, as when a spirit testified through one Shaker medium in 1839 that "the manner in which believer's have always sung" was not picked up and stolen from the world" but was given by "the Angels in heaven" that there might be a "distinction" between the Shakers and the World. The Shakers could not believe that the melodies which voiced their deepest love, joy, penitence, or reverence could have served the World merely as toys.
The Shaker view also held an important truth: as a corollary of their doctrine of continuing revelation, the Shakers prized songs that bore the "feeling" of being "given or matured under a heavenly sensation or spiritual impulse" -- in other words, one "received" by divine inspiration. They believe that the Spirit flowed forth in songs as in other impulses of the regenerate Believer and that new songs were unceasingly provided.
Awakening into a Pentecostal gift was the goal of most Shaker worship. The Believer "labored" spiritually to attain this state, and since it often overflowed into songs, he valued and craved them as evidence of this blessing. Having such a powerful desire to receive new songs, the singers brought forth enormous numbers of them.
Inspiration often had an effect upon song materials similar to that of oral transmission. The inspired melodies, according to Shaker musician Isaac Youngs, differed significantly from consciously composed ones. The "made" songs, he said, usually seemed "hammered out to suit some taste for musical crooks & turns, & airy fleety sounds." But those "given as it were without the author's exertion of art" were "the easiest to prick down & to learn" and seemed "more like fresh roses and matchless blossoms. Youngs appears to be making two points: that the inspired songs sounded more natural to an ear accustomed to folk melody, and that they conformed to the taste of the community instead of exploiting idiosyncrasies of the individual Shaker.
About the Songs
Simple Gifts will probably always be the best-known of all Shaker hymns, thanks to American composer Aaron Copland who used it as the theme of his ballet suite Appalachian Spring. Even before Copland popularized it, however, it was widely known among the Believers, well-preserved in oral tradition, and recorded in more than fifteen manuscripts, where it is identified as a Quick Song. Although its origin is not certain, it is most often described as coming from the singing of Elder Joseph Brackett of Alfred, Maine around 1848. Eldress Caroline Helfrich remembers seeing Elder Joseph sing it in a meeting room, turning about with his coat tails a-flying.
Copyright 1979 by Princeton University Press. Reprinted by permission of Princeton University Press.
Suggested further reading and listening:
Andrews, Edward Deming, The Gift to Be Simple, Dover Publications, 1962.
______ The People Called Shakers, Dover Publications, 1953.
Patterson, Daniel W., The Shaker Spiritual, Princeton University Press, 1979.
Patterson, Daniel W., Gift Drawing and Gift Song, United Society of Shakers, 1983.
Patterson, Daniel W., Singing in the Valley, published privately for the annual meeting of the Friends of the Shakers, Sabbathday Lake, Maine, 1978.
Sprigg, June and David Larkin, Shaker: Life, Work and Art, Stewart, Tabori and Chang, Inc., 1987.
Early Shaker Spirituals (recording), The United Society of Shakers, Sabbathday Lake, Maine; notes by Daniel W. Patterson; Rounder Records 0078,Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1976.
Music of the Shakers (recording), Folkways Records, FH 5378, 1976.
The Shaker Gift of Song (recording), Musica Antiqua, Pleasant Hill, Kentucky, 1980.
Sprigg, June, By Shaker Hands, University Press of New England, 1975.
Stein, Stephen J., The Shaker Experience in America, Yale University Press, 1992.
Sturm, Ann Black, ed., The Shaker Gift of Song, Berea College Press, 1981.
Von Kolken, Diana, ed., The Shaker Messenger, a quarterly journal, Holland, Michigan; particularly for arrangements of Shaker songs by Roger Hall.
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