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The Simple Gifts of Shaker Music in America

About the Shakers and their music

"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.

They were the first religious communal society in America to have women (Eldresses) in equal leadership roles with men (Elders).

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 activities -- 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 probably 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 revivalist, like Afro-American or Negro 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." For more about this unusual music notation,
-- "Invitation to Zion" - A Shaker Music Guide by Roger Lee Hall

"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), was born there. 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.

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" (also known as "Ballad of Mother Ann"). It was published in 1813 in the first printed Shaker hymnal (words only) and titled, 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.



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.

Their first organized community was at New Lebanon, New York in 1787 -- the same year the U.S. Constitution was written.

Besides New York State, 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 this CD:

Love is Little: A Sampling of Shaker Spirituals
(Roger Hall, Mitzie Collins, The Sampler Chorus)

There are more songs from the early church leaders in Daniel Patterson's book, The Shaker Spiritual (1979/ reprinted by Dover Publications in 2000).

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 Jame'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 that whipping in Harvard, to place a stone by the marble shaft in remembrance of Father James Whittaker and Father William Lee.

This dramatic story could be retold in a play or a dramatic film since it illustrates the severe persecution the early Shakers suffered and yet their unbending faith made them continue.

As Mother Ann said: "for 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 Jame'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 of the song on this DVD titled,


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

click here







Shaker Hymns in tribute to Mother Ann Lee


"Reflections on Mother Ann's Birthday"

The most important Shaker religious leader was Mother Ann Lee (originally: Lees), born in Manchester, England on 29 February 1736 and died at Watervliet, New York on 8 September 1784.

Many hymns and songs were written to honor her for establishing the Shakers in America with her inspiring message of Christ love dwelling within each individual. One hymn was composed in 1840 by Brother David A. Buckingham. Here are the first and second verses:

All hail, the great Millennium!
Which thousands long'd to see:
Which ancients prophesi'd would come:
A "Glorious Liberty!"
The light of truth rolls brightly on
As doth the Orb of day:
Behold! the new Jerusalem,
The new and living way.

The sound of Freedom - how it rings!
Let death and darkness flee!
The light of God, the gospel brings
To set our spirits free.
This light appear'd in Mother Ann:
In her, the truth was found:
In her was laid the gospel plan,
Which brought this belssed sound.

This hymn, edited by Roger Lee Hall, was beautifully performed by vocalist, Debra Spencer, accompanied by Shelley Phillips, Celtic harp, and Lars Johannesson, wooden flute, on this CD:



"On the Landing of Mother Ann in America"

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 by an unnamed Shaker 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 Lee Hall and sung by The Sampler Singers on the CD: Love is Little: A Sampling of Shaker Spirituals.

Here is a detailed research study about this Ohio Shaker community:

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.

A performing edition of this song is in this collection:

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


Related Links

New publication!

"Invitation to Zion" - A Shaker Music Guide


Aaron Copland Meets The Shakers

CD and DVD Releases

Shaker Music Discoveries

Shaker Music in Our Time

Shaker Music Lectures and Workshops

Shaker Music Preservation Series



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