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Shaker Music History


"Come Life, Shaker Life" - dance song in Shaker alphabet notation

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

The last Shaker community is located at Sabbathday Lake where there is also a museum and library.
For more about the current Shakers in Maine, their beliefs and activtities -- click here

Today the Shakers are known for their simple and beautiful furniture.

Yet their music played a longer and more important role in Shaker history.

They have proably composed more music than any other religious community in the USA -- well over 10,000 tunes. 

Contrary to popular belief, all Shaker tunes are not "Traditional" or "Anonymous."

It is also incorrect to call all Shaker music -- "songs."

There were three main categories of Shaker music:

Single verse songs (such as "Simple Gifts")

Multi-verse hymns ( such as "The Humble Heart")

Prose anthems (such as "Millennial Praise")

Because they were often inspirationally received and revivalistic, like Afro-American spirituals, they are best classified as -- Shaker spirituals.

They are not all anonymous. Many of these spirituals are attributed to individual Shaker brethren and sisters.

One example is the quick dance song, "Come Life, Shaker Life", composed by Elder Issachar Bates about 1835 [manuscript music shown above].

During most of the 19th century, the Shakers used a type of alphabet music notation (a-b-c-d-e-f-g) which they called the "letteral system" -- used in the above illustration.

The Simple Gifts
Shaker Music in America

"In Yonder Valley" - Early Shaker music

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

Their most important spiritual leader, Mother Ann Lee (1736-1784), born in Manchester, England. She left England on a ship with a few 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 inspiring accounts about Mother Ann Lee was told in Elder Richard McNemar's powerful ballad hymn titled simply, "Mother." It was published in 1813 in the first printed Shaker hymnal, Millennial Praises (words only). 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 was later edited by Roger Hall and published in 1983 and later included on the CD with accompanying songbook, Love is Little: A Sampling of Shaker Spirituals (Sampler Records), which was used as one of the sources for the best-selling Boston Camerata CD, "Simple Gifts."

The important landing of Mother Ann in America in 1774 is commemorated each year with a worship service at Sabbathday Lake, Maine (where the remaining Shakers live) and with programs at various Shaker museums.  

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

Songs by the Gospel Parents

The first Shaker tunes in America were written during the early 1780s by their church leaders (or "Gospel Parents") who had emigrated from England in 1774: Mother Ann Lee, Shaker spiritual leader; 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. There are examples of this early music, including "Mother Ann's Song" from 1783,
recorded on the CD, Love is Little: A Sampling of Shaker Spirituals .

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 took place 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 it was included in the music collection and accompanying CD, Love is Little, This wordless song with melody only 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 - 1787

The first known complete Shaker song with words and music was "Father James's Song
(also known as: "In Yonder Valley"), written by Father James Whittaker (1751-1787).

Read more about this early song still sung by the Shakers in Maine and hear a recorded example on this DVD titled,


"The Humble Heart" -
A Forty Year Survey of Shaker Music
(PineTree Productions, 2016)

Click here






"On the Landing of Mother Ann in America" - Shaker hymn

The most important anniversary celebrated each year by the Shakers is the arrival of Mother Ann Lee and a small number of Believers in America.

They left Liverpool, England in May and arrived in New York City on August 6, 1774. This is a very important date because it signifies the beginning of the Shaker Church in America. The event was often celebrated with special new songs and hymns.

One of these is a ballad hymn titled, "On the Landing of Mother Ann in America," composed at North Union, Ohio (near Cleveland) in 1860.

This is the first of four verses:

O hail this happy welcome day,
When blessed Mother Ann
First landed in America
With her devoted band.
How did the wilderness resound
With Angel's songs of praise
When they on fair Columbia's ground
The gospel standard raised.

Again let the forest loudly resound,
Dear Children of Mother;
Her beautiful way our Spirits have found,
Surpassing all others.

Thus hymn was published in a performing edition by Roger Hall and sung by The Sampler Singers on the CD, Love is Little: A Sampling of Shaker Spirituals.

Roger Hall has also prepared a research study about this Shaker community titled,

Read more -- click here

"Simple Gifts" - Shaker dance song


The most popular Shaker song composed in the 19th century was "Simple Gifts" (also known by its first line of text: "Tis the gift to be simple"). The words and music were written by Elder Joseph Brackett Jr. at the Shaker community in Alfred, Maine in 1848. This song has been arranged in the 20th and 21st centuries by many folk musicians, like Judy Collins, and composers, such as: Aaron Copland and John Williams.

An edition of this song is in this collection compiled by
Roger Hall:

Read all about this popular Shaker dance song -- click here


Related Links


Aaron Copland Meets The Shakers

American Music Recordings Collection (AMRC)

CD and DVD Releases

Joseph Brackett's 'Simple Gifts'

Shaker Music Discoveries

Shaker Music in Our Time

Shaker Music Lectures and Workshops

Shaker Music Preservation Series



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