Shaker music history
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"Simple Gifts"
(Good and Not So Good Recordings)







Portrait of Elder Joseph Brackett Jr., 1797-1882
Composer of "Simple Gifts"

The Aletheia:Spirit of Truth

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




Arranging Simple Gifts

By Roger Lee Hall, musicologist

It is usually assumed that because "Simple Gifts" is in public domain, it can be copied from any book or music collection without giving credit.


For any published arrangement of this Shaker song, the source credit should be given to the editor whose name appears at the top of the page of a book or a music collection.

Lack of proper credit has been a disturbing practice with "Simple Gifts." Usually it is listed incorrectly as a"Traditional Shaker hymn."

"Simple Gifts" was not written as a hymn. Instead, it was written for dancing during their worship service. It is listed in Shaker music manuscripts as a "Quick Dance" or just "Dancing Song."

The Shakers in the 19th century were known for their ecstatic, spirited dance formations -- as shown in this illustration of a Shaker round or circle dance with the singers in the center with the dancers around them:


Over the past half century there have been many folk and classical arrangements of "Simple Gifts." The earliest classical arrangement was by Aaron Copland in 1950. The earliest folk arrangement was by George and Gerry Armstrong in 1961. Also, a popular song was composed by Sydney Carter based on the Shaker tune and he titled his song, "Lord of the Dance."

For some reason, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir has been especially fond of this Shaker song. But they seldom give proper credit and usually perform it with added non-Shaker words that trivialize the original one verse song.

The words to this dance song have often been misunderstood.

Contrary to today's interpretation by some writers, Elder Joseph Brackett was not speaking about a simple uncluttered life. Instead, he was expressing the"gift to be simple" in the Shaker faith with their devotion and service to God. The Shakers have always been a deeply religious people.

That does not mean the song can not be performed for other occasions, such as at a school, university or in a concert hall. But the original words should be retained if possible. If there are additional lyrics by others then it should be clearly stated that new words have been added.

Here is a CD that contains many arrangements of "Simple Gifts":

"Simple Gifts" - A Shaker Song Revisited (AMRC 0033)

Note: Mr. Hall is also a composer and has arranged Shaker music.
For a list of his compositions -- click here




The Good Arrangements


Orchestral Arrangements

One recording with Copland's orchestral "Variations on a Shaker Melody" received the prestigious Grand Prix Du Disque in 1989:



Copland: Appalachian Spring; Billy the Kid; Rodeo

Appalachian Spring, Billy the Kid, Rodeo


These are three recommended CDs
with Aaron Copland conducting and performing:

A Copland Celebration Vol. 1 - Appalachian Spring (original chamber version)
and other works
- original complete ballet version,
including the "Simple Gifts" variations.


A Copland Celebration Vol. 2 - Old American Songs & other works
includes an arrangement of "Simple Gifts" for voice and piano
Old American Songs with
William Warfield, baritone and Aaron Copland, piano

A Copland Celebration Vol. 3 - Old American Songs & other works
orchestral arrangement of "Simple Gifts"
sung by William Warfield
(the distinguished baritone known for his role in Gershwin's Porgy & Bess and he also sang "Ol' Man River" in the MGM movie musical, SHOWBOAT)



Vocal Arrangements

Arrangement of "Simple Gifts" by Roger Lee Hall




Arrangement by Aaron Copland
and also in-person interview




"Simple Gifts" is sensitively performed by cellist Yo-Yo Ma
with vocalist, Allison Krauss, on

The Essential Yo-Yo Ma (2 CDs)



One of the popular arrangements of the past few decades has been by Bob Chilcott, a former member of the world renowned male singing group, The King's Singers. Chilcott's arrangement is titled "The Gift to be Simple," and may be heard on their Grammy-winning Signum CD from the UK:


Chilcott's arrangement of the Shaker dance song is lovely and beautifully performed on the CD. But unfortunately, it is listed as "Trad. American" and not credited to Elder Joseph Brackett. Also included on the CD are British and American folk tunes, like the haunting ballad: "Black is the Color of My True Love's Hair" and several Afro-American spirituals. This CD is a very appealing combination of popular songs and traditional folk tunes, such as "Greensleeves" and "The Turtle Dove" (which has a melody similar to the Shaker hymn, "Let Us Sing Praises").

Read more about this world famous male singing group at their website:



A very good selection of religious music by composers such as Mozart, Pergolesi and J.S. Bach, and traditional tunes like the deeply moving Afro-American spiritual "Deep River," the lovely Austrian folk tune, "Still, Still, Still" (arranged by Mack Wilberg); and the popular Swedish hymn, "How Great Thou Art." The Shaker song "Simple Gifts" is correctly identified as being written by Elder Joseph Brackett Jr. The simple arrangement for voice and orchestra was made by Chris Hazell.This is an inspiring collection, beautifully sung by Bryn Terfel, the London Voices, with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Barry Wordsworth.


To order this recommended CD, click on this link:



New Songs

Over the past few decades, there have been many attempts made to expand the one verse Shaker song by adding new verses. There are some who have done better by writing their own lyrics to the song's melody.

Probably the best known example is Sydney Carter's 1963 song, "Lord of the Dance."

Another very good effort was made by UK composer Anthony Wakefield, who has decided to write his own lyrics and set it to Joseph Brackett's Shaker tune. He calls his new song, "Dream Dance." You can read about it at this link: Anthony Wakefield Music


And now for...


The Not So Good Arrangements


For Piano

The Piano Guys


This is a best-selling CD and also a very popular YouTube video. But it looks more like a slick TV commercial than a good representation of these two songs. It features pianist, Jon Schmidt, and cellist, Steven Sharp Nelson, plus two other guys who assisted behind the scenes: Paul Anderson and Al Van Der Beek. The medley of Harold Arlen's "Over The Rainbow" mixed with Joseph Brackett's "Simple Gifts" doesn't due justice to either song.

The tune used for "Simple Gifts" is actually closer to Sydney Carter's song, "Lord Of The Dance" which is based on the "Simple Gifts" tune.

This type of New Age/Crossover or whatever it may be called is just exploiting the original music which can stand very well by itself without all the rhythmic, techno stuff thrown in. The arrangements are more repetitive rhythms than meaningful melodies.




This CD has another medley. On track 3 is an arrangement of "Simple Gifts" and "Going Home" by Professor Jeffrey Shumway at Brigham Young University. But it has some misleading information in its credits.

The composers mentioned are Aaron Copland for "Simple Gifts" and Antonin Dvorak for "Going Home." The composers of these songs should be Elder Joseph Brackett and William Arms Fisher.

Copland arranged the Shaker melody in his Appalachian Spring, while Dvorak composed his Largo theme in his Symphony No. 9 (From the New World), but never composed the song titled "Going Home" (or more accurately, "Goin' Home"). Unfortunately, credit was not given to the original composers, Joseph Brackett for "Simple Gifts" and William Arms Fisher for "Goin' Home." This is often the case with record labels that fail to search for the most accurate information.

Jeffrey Shumway's piano arrangement of these two American songs is okay, with subtle interweaving of both melodies, but doesn't do justice to either song without the words included or printed in the CD booklet. The remainder of the CD is devoted to classical piano works, some well known and others less familiar.


For Chorus

There have been numerous failed attempts to add non-Shaker words to the song.

Why add new verses to this one verse Shaker dance song? The Shaker elder who wrote it could have easily written more verses, but it was never intended to be sung as the sentimental hymn it has become in many arrangements.

These new verses sound more like greeting card messages rather than expressions of simple faith by a Shaker religious leader.

The Mormon Tabernacle Choir has made several recordings of "Simple Gifts" but has not given the proper credit to the song's composer.

On a recent centennial anniversary collection,
100 Years: Celebrating A Century Of Recording Excellence (2CD/1 DVD),
"Simple Gifts" is listed on Disc 2 as follows:

Simple Gifts
Music: Shaker song
Text: Traditional Shaker, additions by David Warner
Arranged by Mack Wilberg

Once again, the credit is to "Traditional" instead of Elder Joseph Brackett for his Shaker song composed at Alfred, Maine in 1848.

This Mormon Tabernacle Choir recording is from an earlier release:


Love Is Spoken Here: Songs of Heart and Home
Craig Jessop and Mack Wilberg, conductors

A previous release has different words added that are also overly sentimental and inappropriate:


Songs From America's Heartland
Jerold Ottley, conductor
Added words for "Simple Gifts" by A. Laurence Lyon









Related Links

Multimedia DVD: "Simple Gifts" - Great American Folk Song



Joseph Brackett's "Simple Gifts"

Shaker music arrangements by Roger Lee Hall

Shaker music in our time

Shaker music on CDs and DVDs

Shaker Music Lectures and Workshops







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