Joseph Brackett's "Simple Gifts"
Shaker simplicity in song
This is the best known Shaker song and there are many arrangements of it -- hundreds of them on Spotify, for example. But few people know the facts about this song?
Consider these common errors...
Fiction No. 1: The title of this song is "The Gift to be Simple" or "Tis a gift to be simple."
Fact: The correct titles are "Simple Gifts" or "Tis the gift to be simple"
as indicated in original 19th century Shaker music manuscripts.
Fiction No. 2: This is a Shaker hymn with more than one verse.
Fact: It was actually a dance song and not a hymn. It was sung while dancing during their worship ritual.
Some Shaker music manuscripts list it as "Dancing Song" or as a "Quick Dance."
The added verses to this song were written by non-Shaker writers.
Here are the words for the complete one verse Shaker song:
'Tis the gift to be simple, 'tis the gift to be free,
'Tis the gift to come down, where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
"Twill be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gain'd,
To bow and to bend we shan't be ashamed,
To turn, turn will be our delight
Till by turning, turning we come round right.
The last three lines of the song are dance instructions.
Fiction: "Simple Gifts" is an anonymous Shaker tune.
Fact: The song was composed by a Shaker church leader, Elder Joseph Brackett Jr.,
at the Shaker community in Alfred, Maine in 1848. His portrait still hangs in the music room
at the Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village in Maine.
Here is his portrait...
Elder Joseph Brackett Jr,
Composer of the "Simple Gifts" song
If you want all the facts and the full story about the Shaker song,
including its origin and evolution from the 19th century onward,
title written by the foremost authority on the song:
The complete illustrated book is available on a multimedia DVD
with bonus audio and video features and is titled,
A specially produced CD, "Simple Gifts" - A Shaker Song Revisited (AMRC 0033), contains many versions of this best known Shaker song, and also a 1980 audio interview with Aaron Copland. In addition, there is a copy of The Story of Simple Gifts: Joseph Brackett's Shaker Dance Song, a booklet including historical information and a copy of the original song.
To receive a copy of this CD-ROM, make a donation of $20 to help support this American Music Preservation website.
Make your donation by credit card payable to PineTree Productions, through safe and secure PayPal.
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After you have made your donation,
please send your mailing address to: Simple Gifts CD
Description from the popular annual director, Chase's Calendar of Events:
"JOSEPH BRACKETT DAY. May 6. Day honoring the Shaker religious leader, born May 6, 1797, at Cumberland, ME. In 1848 he composed the popular Shaker song "Simple Gifts" (also known as "Tis the gift to be simple) while at the Shaker community in Alfred, ME. This Shaker song became known worldwide after Aaron Copland used it in his score for the ballet Appalachian Spring in 1944. Elder Joseph Brackett died at New Gloucester, ME, July 4, 1882."
This DVD was recorded at the beautiful Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill in Kentucky
with an outstanding program of American chamber music,
by the Live from Lincoln Center ensemble of musicians.
Note: The Shaker song is repeatedly incorrectly titled.
Also, it would have been helpful to mention on the DVD
that "Simple Gifts" was composed in 1848
that there are still a few Shakers living at Sabbathday Lake, Maine,
where Elder Joseph Brakcett's portrait hangs
on a wall of remembrance in their Music Room.
Did you know the "Simple Gifts" melody was used
on television and several films?
Aaron Copland's arrangement of the Shaker song was used as the theme for "See It Now" on television in the 1960s.
In a British comedy
starring Peter Sellers
the Shaker melody was arranged
by film composer Richard Rodney Bennett and the film is available from Amazon.com...
Plus this film directed by Spike Lee, who said that when he heard Aaron Copland's music
(including his arrangement of "Simple Gifts"), he thought of America, and his film is about basketball
which is American in origin so it was a natural connection with Copland's music...
Simple Gifts - a list of CDs both recommended and not recommended.
Wikipedia -- article about "Simple Gifts." Note: Some of the information in this article is incorrect. The information under "Tune," has a music example and text underneath and both are incorrect and not based on Shaker sources.