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Book Review


Issachar Bates: A Shaker's Journey

  • by Carol Medlicott
    University Press of New England
    Hanover, New Hampshire, 2013
    448 pages (hardcover and paperback)



This is a compelling book about the life of one of the most important early Shaker church leaders and musicians.

Having studied the music of Elder Issachar Bates since the 1970s, I was very anxious to read this new book. His story is a fascinating one and he was a very colorful leader who spoke bluntly and directly, both to his fellow Shaker members and also to those he sought to convert to their faith.

Medlicott tells of his "journey" with a wealth of never before available information on his life and his travels to different Shaker locations. There are also three useful additions at the back of the book:

Appendix 1 -A Bates Family Tree
Appendix 2 -A Collection of Songs and Poems by Issachar Bates
Appendix 3 -Songs by Issachar Bates's Children

The seventeen "songs" (mostly actually hymns) by Bates are valuable since they have not been published before. Likewise for the eleven tunes and texts by his children: Polly, Issachar Jr., Sarah and Betsy. This also illustrates that both Shaker men and women composed music.

Unfortunately, in the main part of the book, Medlicott doesn't adequately cover the musical side of Issachar Bates.

Foremost among all the many tunes he composed was his popular dance song, "Come Life, Shaker Life" - the only one by him still sung by the current Sabbathday Lake Shakers in Maine. It was also used in the 1960s by folk musician, Richie Havens, for his folk-rock song, "Run, Shaker Life."

The popularity of this song demonstrates that Issachar Bates was an influential early Shaker musician and composer of his time. So, it seems that more space should have been devoted to this aspect of his life, in addition to his travels and the various complexities of his life. But that is not the case.

Medlicott does mention a few important music titles.

For example, she makes reference to the important early ballad hymn, "Rights of Conscience," and writes:

It is a hymn in which Issachar clarifies his continued patriotism, and he probably used it to appeal to the many patriots and veterans in his crowds of listeners.

Yet, then she doesn't include any of the fifteen stanzas of text which makes reference to his years serving under General George Washington and she doesn't reference in a footnote that both the complete text and slightly different tunes are available in two books: The Shaker Spiritual by Daniel W. Patterson, and my book, "Come Life, Shaker Life" - The Life and Music of Elder Issachar Bates.

There are several other important hymns that are mentioned by Medlicott.

One of these pieces she writes about is the hymn, "Ode to Contentment." She writes that "the text seems to be an expression of his own emotional state" (page 244). Well, that doesn't agree with several Shaker manuscripts that give credit for the text to another prominent Shaker elder, Richard W. Pelham at North Union, Ohio. In her footnote for this hymn, she discredits all these Shaker manuscripts as incorrect except for one from South Union, Kentucky in 1833 as the only reliable source. She ends by writing that

there is in fact no evidence, apart from attributions in some manuscripts versions of the song that the two men ever collaborated.

What she fails to comprehend is there are many Shaker spirituals written by one member in one community and the text by another member in a different community and they may never have met. In this particular case I recall reading years ago in a manuscript that Richard Pelham had written the "Ode to Contentment" text as a way to comfort Issachar Bates who had been ill at that time in 1835. The hymn text is also listed in Pelham's own book. In addition, the hymn text is credited as originating at North Union, Ohio (not South Union, Kentucky) in the printed Shaker hymnal from 1847. Medlicott apparently does not believe what the Shakers themselves believed! In addition, "Ode to Contentment" has been recorded several times and yet none of these are listed in a footnote or in a discography which is missing from the book, implying there are no recordings available. For more about "Ode to Contentment," see this link.

Also, Medlicott doesn't mention other important music by Bates.

For instance there is his distinctive and well-liked anthem, "Mount Zion," included in the Patterson book and mine as well. This was the only title by Issachar Bates included in the first Shaker hymnal printed with music, A Sacred Repository of Anthems and Hymns, compiled by Elder Henry C. Blinn, Canterbury, New Hampshire, 1852. There is no mention of this anthem or the hymnal. Also, a recording of this anthem was included on the CD, Gentle Words - A Shaker Music Sampler.

His very last hymn was requested by Bates to be sung at his funeral. It exists with several different titles and tunes, including one I edited titled, "Almighty Savior." Medlicott has a different version which she assumes was the original version and that may or may not be true. It is titled "Nightly Prayer." I personally prefer the one I edited and included in my Come Life, Shaker Life book. I find it is more melodically appealing than "Nightly Prayer" -- the tune and text are found in Appendix 2 on pages 327-28. This seems to be a variant of one of the tunes for this funeral hymn titled, "Humble Prayer," which I included as an illustration in my book. But I think it is dangerous to assume that Medlicott's version is the original one based on a assumption of it being written down by a friend of Bates. It is better to just identify all the variants since they are all identified with the Bates funeral hymn text in Shaker music manuscripts. What Medlicott doesn't mention is that the text of this hymn was also included in the 1847 Shaker hymnal with the title, "A Prayer to the Savior." This is further proof of the lasting importance of the music by Issachar Bates.

One of the most annoying traits concerning Shaker music is classifying them all as "songs."

Medlicott falls into this trap. That is surprising since she is obviously aware of the books by Edward Deming Andrews, Harold E. Cook, and Daniel W. Patterson, who have all classified Shaker music in various categories. Essentially there are three main types: songs, hymns and anthems. Calling them all "songs" merely does injustice to the music which does have definite forms. Also, it is necessary to classify the various types of music since the Shakers did this in their many music manuscripts and printed hymnals. Shouldn't the Shakers themselves be trusted in classifying their own music?

Why is the Boston Camerata CD mentioned (page 312) for "Come Life, Shaker Life" and not the Sabbathday Lake Shakers CD, Early Shaker Spirituals, not even mentioned? In addition, it seems unfair that the Camerata CD with only one Shaker song by Bates was mentioned and others that have more music by Bates were ignored. It is a common occurrence that writers, including academics, neglect to survey what is available, especially online sites such as this one.

Even with these omissions concerning the music, this remains a valuable book for it provides a fascinating story of the life of a major Shaker church leader and musician.

In her Epilogue (page 288), Medlicott nicely summarizes the life of Issachar Bates this way:

No other Shaker of his time or any other pursued a life journey that passed through such a grand panorama of places, processes and people...And his story allows us to effectively locate the entire Shaker movement within the context of American expansion during the Early Republic period.

She also quotes what a Shaker wrote about Bates:

He was a powerful minister both in his preaching and singing, of which he had a great gift both natural and spiritual, apt and ready on all occasions either public or private to give quick answer to any question that might be asked.

Thus, he was greatly admired by all who knew him.

Just keep in mind that the music of Issachar Bates is of far greater importance than is indicated in this "journey."

-- Roger Lee Hall, November 2013



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