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The Shakers are the oldest surviving religious communal sect in the United States.

The last active Shaker community is located at Sabbathday Lake, Maine. Today the Shakers are known primarily for their simple and beautiful furniture. Yet their music played a longer and more important role in Shaker history. 

Contrary to popular belief, all Shaker tunes are not "Traditional" or "Anonymous."
One of their best known songs is "Come Life, Shaker Life" composed by Elder Issachar Bates about 1835 [manuscript shown above].


Many of the spirituals are attributed to individual Shaker brethren and sisters. They also used a type of alphabet music notation (a-b-c-d-e-f-g) which they called the "letteral system."






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Note: The following three part article is available at no charge for educational use.
If you use any of the information, please give credit to the author, Roger Lee Hall,
and list his biography page:

Click here

 

 

The Simple Gifts
of
Shaker Music in America

 

 

 

Part One: The 18th Century

The Shakers originated in the area around Manchester, England during the mid-18th century.

Their most important spiritual leader, Mother Ann Lee (1736-1784), left England with eight other Believers, including her husband Abraham and her brother William, and they arrived in New York City on 6 August 1774.

This important journey was celebrated in later Shaker hymns and songs.

One of the earliest and most important accounts was told in Elder Richard McNemar's powerful ballad hymn titled simply, "Mother." It was published in 1813 in the first Shaker hymnal, Millennial Praises. There were sixteen verses to this hymn beginning with this one:

Let names and sects and parties
Accost my ears no more,
My ever blessed Mother,
Forever I'll adore:
Appointed by kind heaven,
My Savior to reveal,
Her doctrine is confirmed
With an eternal seal.

Sister R. Mildred Barker introduced this ballad hymn in 1974 at a Sabbathday Lake conference celebrating the bicentennial of the Shakers arrival in America. She began at the sixth verse:

At Manchester, in England,
This blessed fire began,
And like a flame in stubble,
From house to house it ran:
A few at first receiv'd it,
And did their lusts forsake;
And soon their inward power
Brought on a mighty shake.

 

This ballad hymn is included on the CD and accompanying songbook, Love is Little: A Sampling of Shaker Spirituals

The important landing of the Shakers in America in 1774 is commemorated each year with a worship service at Sabbathday Lake, Maine (where the few remaining Shakers live) and with programs at various Shaker museums, such as in Canterbury , New Hampshire, and Pleasant Hill, Kentucky.  

The first Shaker settlement was located at Niskayuna (later Watervliet), New York in 1776. However, their first organized community was at New Lebanon (later called Mt. Lebanon), New York in 1787.

Besides New York, the Shakers had communities in other states as well: Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Maine, Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana, Georgia and Florida.

Early Shaker Songs

The first Shaker tunes in America were written about 1781 by the church leaders (or "Gospel Parents") who had emigrated from England: Mother Ann Lee; her brother, Father William Lee; and Father James Whittaker.  All three wrote songs.

The earliest known Shaker songs were composed without any text or with just syllables. Examples of this early music are: "Mother Ann's Song" from 1783, recorded on the CD, Love is Little: A Sampling of Shaker Spirituals . This song along with several others by Father William Lee (one beginning "We um vam"), and a funeral song for Joseph Jewett sung by Father James Whittaker, are shown here written in Shaker letteral notation...

Page from a Shaker manuscript volume
(Courtesy: American Antiquarian Society, Worcester, Massachusetts)

A Song of Redemption - 1783

Over two centuries ago, one of the most difficult times during the missionary travels of Mother Ann between 1781 and 1783 ocurred at Harvard and Shirley in Massachusetts. It was there that angry mobs rose up against the Shakers and brutally attacked them. Here is a vivid description from the Shakers' own history titled, Shakerism: Its Meaning and Message (1904), by Anna White and Leila S. Taylor:

The year 1783 seems to surpass all previous years of this wonderful life in the frequency, cruelty and intensity of the warfare of evil...

Father James [Whittaker] was tied to a tree [in Harvard] and scourged until the ground was wet with his blood. Father William [Lee] requested that he take his whipping on his knees, and this was granted, but Father James, freed from the tree to which he had been tied, leaped upon Father William, thus shielding his brother by means of his own lacerated back. At this time Mother Ann and Hannah Kendall were standing in the garden at Shirley, seven miles away, and Mother Ann exclaimed, "The Elders are in great tribulation. I hear Elder William's soul cry to Heaven"! The mob at length retired, leaving their victims to care for themselves. Kneeling, they rejoiced and prayed, and to Father James was given a new song, which he sang upon his knees, his bruised and bleeding form just from the hands of his inhuman persecutors...

On returning to Shirley, his brethren and sisters wept at sight of his mangled and discolored back which was beaten to a jelly. Mother Ann looked on them with pitying eyes, and said: "This is the life of the Gospel, for without suffering there is no redemption. Where there is no persecution nor suffering there is no Gospel, no ceasing from sin. All souls that will be made perfect must go through mortification, tribulation and suffering."

The "new song" mentioned in this description is known as "Father James's Song" and recorded on the CD, Love is Little. This wordless song was written on the day of his brutal whipping in 1783.

From The Happy Journey: Thirty-five Shaker Spirituals (1982)
(Courtesy: Fruitlands Museums, Harvard, Massachusetts)

Years later a marble shaft was erected near the spot [shown in the above photo], and it became the custom for any Shaker who passed by that place of the 1783 whipping in Harvard, to place a stone in remembrance of Father James Whittaker and Father William Lee.

This dramatic story deserves to be retold in a play or a film for its depiction of the severe persecution suffered and yet the unbending faith held by the early Shaker leaders.

As Mother Ann said: "without suffering there is no redemption."

First Shaker song with words and music

The first known Shaker song complete with words and music was, "In Yonder Valley," written by Father James Whittaker in 1787, recorded on the Love is Little CD. This song is shown here in Shaker letteral music notation...

Shaker manuscript journal
(Courtesy: American Antiquarian Society, Worcester, Massachusetts)

Dance songs were also popular during in the early years from the 1780s to the 1820s and were usually without text, sung with vocables. Examples are: "Square Order Shuffle" and "Quick Step Manner" [both recorded on the CD,  Love is Little ].

Are you a filmmaker interested in making a film about Shaker culture?
For more information about a possible film project, go here

 

 

Go to Part Two: 19th Century Shaker Music >>


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