New England Song Series No. 4:
Joseph Brackett's "Simple Gifts"
Portrait of Elder Joseph Brackett Jr,
The Aletheia:Spirit of Truth
by Aurelia G. Mace.
Press of the Knowlton & McLeary Co.,
this Shaker song
by clicking on these links:
Simple Words for
a Simple Song
"Simple Gifts" has become one of the most popular American folk spirituals. It has been performed in public schools, colleges, folk clubs, churches, concert halls and other locations all across the USA and in other countries as well.
Yet, unfortunately there have been so many errors associated with "Simple Gifts" that it is time, as the song says, "we come round right."
First, it is not accurate to call "Simple Gifts" a Shaker hymn or a work song.
It was originally written as a dance song for use in their worship. The words --"To turn, turn will be our delight" and "Till by turning, turning" -- are dance instructions.
It has been incorrectly titled: "The Gift to be Simple" or "Tis a gift to be simple." The song was originally titled: "Simple Gifts" or "Tis the gift to be simple."
More incorrect information...
It is claimed that Elder Joseph Brackett wrote the song in 1875 in the book Eminent Mainers by Arthur Douglas Stover. The date of 1875 is incorrect and not even close to the actual date.
And still more inaccurate information...
There are some who have claimed that the Shaker song was used by others, including Bela Bartok's Rhapsody No. 1 for Violin and Piano, and Rivers Cuomo from the band Weezer in his song, "The Greatest Man That Ever Lived (Variations on a Shaker Hymn)."
In each piece, there is no quoting of the complete Shaker tune, only a few similar notes. As far as known, neither composer was attempting to quote the original tune. They are examples of "sounds-like" melodies and are more of a coincidence than an actual quote of the Shaker folk tune.
What is the correct information?
"Simple Gifts" was song composed by Elder Joseph Brackett Jr. in Alfred, Maine in 1848. Any additional verses that appear online or in books are not original Shaker words and not by Elder Joseph Brackett.
These are the complete original words to the one verse Shaker dance 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 asham'd,
To turn, turn will be our delight
'Till by turning, turning we come round right.
The foremost authority on this Shaker dance song is Roger Lee Hall, an ethnomusicologist and composer. He wrote the very first scholarly article about the "Simple Gifts" song in 1980. Since then he has written extensively about the song in several booklets, in newspaper and magazine articles.
Now he has prepared a more detailed book (available in PDF) with the full story about the origin and evolution of this popular Shaker song from the 19th century until today. It is titled,
"Simple Gifts": Great American Folk Song
A previous shorter monograph titled, The Story of 'Simple Gifts': Joseph Brackett's Shaker Dance Song (PineTree Press, 2006) is available on the Deluxe DVD-ROM: A Shaker Music Miscellany.
An attractive broadside (8 1/2 X 11) by GMH Design,
edited by Roger Lee Hall,
with the words and music to the Shaker song
on heavy cover stock,
is available for display or gift-giving.
To order this colorful broadside, go to the
This specially produced non-commercial CD, SIMPLE GIFTS OF SHAKER MUSIC, with over one hour of music contains 30 tracks of Shaker music recorded in live concerts and from Public Radio programs between 1976 and 2002.
It includes six different versions of the best known Shaker song, "Simple Gifts" (aka: 'Tis the gift to be simple). Also many other beautiful Shaker spirituals.
To receive a copy, make a donation of $25 or more to help support this music preservation site.
Make your donation by credit card payable to PineTree Productions, through safe and secure PayPal.
Click on this button to
After you have made your donation,
please send your mailing address to:
Simple Gifts CD
Joseph Brackett Day
Sponsored by The Tune Lovers Society, each year there is a birthday commemoration of the religious leader who composed the words and music to "Simple Gifts."
Elder Joseph Brackett Jr. was born on May 6, 1797 in Cumberland, Maine. He died on July 4, 1882 in New Gloucester, Maine.
Listeners and musicians are urged to play or perform "Simple Gifts" on May 6 to honor Elder Joseph Brackett's popular Shaker dance song.
There are a list of good and not so good recordings at
Simple Gifts CDs.
For more information about Joseph Brackett Day,
look under "May 6" in this well-respected annual directory:
Chase's Calendar of Events 2014
Read about 1974 meeting when
Aaron Copland Meets The Shakers
"Simple Gifts" on CDs
Original Shaker melody on these CDs...
Early Shaker Spirituals -
Sung by the Sabbathday Lake Shakers
"Simple Gifts" song and a portion of the interview
with Aaron Copland
are included on this CD,
Gentle Words: A Shaker Music Sampler
See also this accompanying monograph,
Gentle Words: Shaker Music in the 20th Century
JOY OF ANGELS:
Shaker Spirituals For Christmas and The New Year
The Sampler Chorus
Love is Little:
A Sampling of Shaker Spirituals
The Sampler Chorus
Simple Gifts: Shaker Chants and Spirituals
(Boston Camerata with the Sabbathday Lake Shakers)
Arrangements of "Simple Gifts"
"Simple Gifts" on Film
A new story treatment by Roger Lee Hall
is available about Elder Joseph Brackett's famous song
and how it was written.
For inquiries by documentary or feature film producers,
Simple Gifts film story treatment
Did you know the "Simple Gifts" melody was used
in several motion pictures? For example, these films:
A British comedy
starring Peter Sellers?
The Shaker melody was arranged
by film composer Richard Rodney Bennett and is available from Amazon.com...
DVD: HEAVENS ABOVE! (1963)
starring Peter Sellers
And this film where "Simple Gifts" is played over the End Credits...
DVD: THE EUROPEANS (1979)
starring Lee Remick, Wesley Addy, Robin Ellis
Also 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...
CD: HE GOT GAME (1998)
Do you know of any other motion pictures
that use the "Simple Gifts" melody?
Send the information to:
Simple Gifts on Film
Read the Spirit.com -- David Crumm speaks
with author Roger Hall about "Simple Gifts."
Shaker Books and Articles -- books and articles about Shaker music.
Shaker Music History -- highlights from 18th to 21st centuries.
Shaker Music Lectures and Workshops -- programs available for any audience
Simple Gifts - Great American Folk Song (book, music and video clips)
Simple Gifts - a list of CDs both recommended and not recommended.
Society for American Music Bulletin (Fall, 1997) -- article by Roger Hall about Elder Joseph Brackett and "Simple Gifts."
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.
For comments or questions, write to:
Joseph Brackett's Simple Gifts