Shaker music history
Books and articles


Joseph Brackett's "Simple Gifts"






Portrait of Elder Joseph Brackett Jr,

The Aletheia:Spirit of Truth

by Aurelia G. Mace.
Farmington, Maine:
Press of the Knowlton & McLeary Co., 1907












Simple words for a simple song



"Simple Gifts" (or 'Tis the gift to be simple) has become one of the most popular American religious folk songs. It has been arranged by composers like: Aaron Copland, Bill Crofut, John Williams and many others.

"Simple Gifts" 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.

The Music Educators Conference have listed this Shaker song as one of the songs that "every American should know."

Another popular song, "Lord of the Dance," used the Shaker tune and adapted by English songwriter, Sydney Carter.

Yet, unfortunately there have been so many errors associated with "Simple Gifts" that it is time,
as the song says, "we come round right."

Back in 1980 I wrote the first article which provided the correct information about this Shaker song in The Shaker Messenger magazine. That article has been reprinted on the DVD: "Give Good Gifts" - Shaker Music in the 20th Century

Unfortunately, the errors keep spreading, both on the Internet and in books and CDs.

Here are a few of the errors about this Shaker tune:

1 - It is often classified as an anonymous or traditional Shaker hymn. Not true. It is not anonymous nor is it a hymn. It was called a "Dancing Song" or "Quick Dance." in Shaker manuscripts and used in their worship ritual. The words --"To turn, turn will be our delight" and "Till by turning, turning" -- are dance instructions.

2 - There are two or more verses to the song. That is incorrect. There is only one verse to this song. Any additional verses that appear online or in books are not original Shaker words and not by Elder Joseph Brackett. Why add extra verses to this song? The words express a basic tenet of the Shaker faith -- to be simple.

3 - It was unknown before Aaron Copland used it in his ballet score for "Appalachian Spring" in 1944. Actually it was first discovered in the 1930s by Edward Deming Andrews and first mentioned in his article in The Musical Quarterly in 1937.

4 - The song has been incorrectly titled: "The Gift to be Simple" or "Tis a gift to be simple." The song was originally titled: "Simple Gifts," or "Dancing Song", or by its first line: "Tis the gift to be simple."

And here are the facts:

These are the complete original words of this one verse 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.

Both the text and tune for this song were written by Elder Joseph Brackett Jr. at the Alfred, Maine Shaker community in 1848. And it originally used for dancing as this 19th century Currier & Ives print shows:


Please help spread the word with the correct information for this Shaker song, and by so doing we can

"come round right."

by Roger Lee Hall, Ethnomusicologist and Composer


For extensive information about this popular Shaker dance song see this book...


"Simple Gifts": Great American Folk Song
by Roger Lee Hall (PineTree Press, 2014)

This book gives the full story about the origin and evolution of this popular Shaker song from the 19th century onward into the 20th and 21st centuries. The book includes chapters on the song's evolution. The complete book is included on a multi-media DVD with bonus music examples, audio interviews with Sister Mildred Barker and composer, Aaron Copland, and video clips. It is titled,

To read about this multi-media DVD:

Click here


Also available --

Multi-media DVD with "Simple Gifts" in audio and video versions:

To read about this multi-media publication:

Click here



Watch an choral arrangement of "Simple Gifts" by Roger Lee Hall on YouTube -- click here







Simple Gifts
©PineTree Music

An attractive broadside (8 1/2 X 11) by GMH Design,
edited by Roger 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

AMP Store





Simple Gifts Revisited
(AMRC 0033)


This disc has exclusive in-person interviews with two people who helped spread this song in the 20th century:

--Sister Mildred Barker (1897-1990), who learned the song where it was composed at the Shaker community in Alfred, Maine.

--Composer Aaron Copland (1900-1990), who arranged the Shaker song in Appalachian Spring,
Old American Songs, and Variations on a Shaker Melody.

Also on the disc is a radio segment on WGBH-FM in Boston with Shaker music scholar, Roger Hall, who introduces arrangements of "Simple Gifts" by The Beers Family, Judy Collins and Aaron Copland.

As a bonus on the disc there is a 72 page book titled, The Story of Simple Gifts: Joseph Brackett's Shaker Dance Song by Roger Hall.

To receive Simple Gifts Revisited with music, interviews, and book all on a disc readable on your computer, make a donation of $20 or more to help support this American Music Preservation informational website.

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,
lease send your mailing address to:

Simple Gifts disc








Joseph Brackett Day - May 6




Sponsored by The American Tune Lovers Society (ATLS), each year there is a birthday commemoration of the religious leader who composed the words and music to "Simple Gifts."

Listeners and musicians are invited to play or perform "Simple Gifts" to honor Elder Joseph Brackett's popular Shaker dance song.


"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."

--from Chase's Calendar of Events 2016, page 262





"Simple Gifts" -
Original versions on these recordings --



Early Shaker Spirituals -
Sung by the Sabbathday Lake Shakers




"Simple Gifts" song and a portion of an interview
with Aaron Copland are included on this CD,

Gentle Words: A Shaker Music Sampler




Shaker Spirituals For Christmas and The New Year

The Sampler Chorus




Love is Little:
A Sampling of Shaker Spirituals

The Sampler Chorus





Arrangements of "Simple Gifts"


CD: Celestial Praises - A Celebration of Shaker Spirituals
"Simple Gifts" arranged by Roger Lee Hall.

Sheet music is available in "Four New England Shaker Spirituals" (Op. 40)




For other recorded arrangements




"Simple Gifts"
Music For U.S. Presidents

by Roger Lee Hall

Because of its message of simplicity and freedom, and its American religious roots, "Simple Gifts" has been used in the Inaugurations of three U.S. Presidents: Ronald Reagan in 1985; Bill Clinton in 1993; and Barack Obama's in 2009. This Shaker song was also performed at the funeral of Richard Nixon in 1994. So that's two Republicans and two Democrats with this song included in their Inauguration and funeral service.

Thus, "Simple Gifts" might rightly be called -- America's most inspiring folk spiritual.

A new piece by film composer John Williams titled, "Air and Simple Gifts," was premiered during the Inauguration Day ceremonies for U.S. President Barack Obama on
January 20, 2009.
Watch the performance of "Air and Simple Gifts" by John Williams
at the 2009 Inauguration ceremony by violinist Itzhak Perlman, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, clarinetist Anthony McGill, and pianist Gabriela Montero on










Composer Aaron Copland and "Simple Gifts"


"Appalachian Spring" ballet
Part 3 with "Simple Gifts" Variations -
Martha Graham's Dance Company (filmed in 1958)

Part 4 with final "Simple Gifts" Variation



Aaron Copland meets
the Sabbathday Lake Shakers in 1974




"Simple Gifts" On Film


Did you know the "Simple Gifts" melody was used in a British comedy starring Peter Sellars? The Shaker melody was arranged by film composer Richard Rodney Bennett on this film...


Heavens Above!


Do you know of any other films that uses the "Simple Gifts" melody?
Send the information to:

Simple Gifts On Film










Related Links


Interview with Roger Hall (January 20, 2011) about his first book about "Simple Gifts"

Shaker Books and Articles -- books and articles about Shaker music.

Shaker CDs and DVDs -- interviews with Shakers, original and arranged Shaker music.

Shaker Music Lectures and Workshops -- programs available for any audience

"Shaker music speaks to the heart" (The Lewiston Journal, July 18, 1987)

Simple Gifts -- Great American Folk Song (book, music examples and interviews, video clips)

Simplicity of Shaker Music -- about Shaker "letteral" music notation ad other information.

Wikipedia -- article about "Simple Gifts."
Note: Some of the information in this Wikipedia article is incorrect. The information under "Tune," has a music example that is not based on Shaker manuscript sources and the text underneath the tune is not correct.


For comments or questions about the Shaker song, write to:

Joseph Brackett's Simple Gifts


Return to top of the page



Shaker Music (Home page)





© 2006-2016 This page is copyrighted by PineTree Multimedia Productions. All Rights Reserved.
No pictures or images to be used without prior permission.