The Simple Gifts
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The 20th Century
1901 - 1959
The last printed Shaker hymnal was published by the Shakers at East Canterbury, New Hampshire in 1908. There are 23 anthems and 225 hymns in this hymnal.
Here is the Title Page with signatures of two departed Canterbury Shaker Sisters: Bertha Lindsay and Gertrude M. Soule, from a private collection:
© PineTree Productions, 2006
Twenty of the hymns and anthems in this 1908 hymnal, including Eldress Dorothy Durgin's beautiful hymn "Prayer Universal," are performed by the Canterbury and Sabbathday Lake Shakers on this 2 CD set: Let Zion Move: Music of the Shakers
After this 1908 hymnal was published, only a small number of hymns and songs were composed.
One of these last Shaker songs was "Let mine be the hand to reach out to the wayward,"
written by Sister Lillian Phelps (1876-1973) at Canterbury in 1914, sung by Eldress Bertha Lindsay and Sister Lillian on Let Zion Move: Music of the Shakers.
The best known Shaker song is "Simple Gifts" (also known by its first line: 'Tis the gift to be simple). It was first published in an article then a book in 1940 by Edward Deming Andrews, The Gift to be Simple: Songs, Dances and Rituals of the American Shakers . This song was discovered by composer Aaron Copland who arranged it for his ballet score, Appalachian Spring. Unfortunately, this song is often incorrectly identified as a "Traditional Shaker Hymn." Actually it is not a hymn. Read more about it at this link: Joseph Brackett's "Simple Gifts."
In the late 1940s, Harold Cook had written the first Ph.D dissertation on Shaker music. His work was later edited by his widow and published in 1973 in a book titled, Shaker Music: A Manifestation of American Folk Culture.
In the year 1947, a Shaker Village Work Camp began on part of the former Shaker head ministry, known as Mt. Lebanon located on the New York-Massachusetts border. One of the activities of this summer work camp was to learn Shaker music. They eventually produced two songbooks: Song of the Shakers in 1956 and another one in 1962.
In the 1950s, Brother Ricardo Belden was interviewed by Jerome Count of the Shaker Village Work Camp. Brother Ricardo was asked about various types of Shaker music and then sings a Shaker song: "Living Souls, Let's Be Marching." His singing and interview, plus singing the teenage boys and girls from the Work Camp conducted by David Conviser was released on 10 inch disc, titled 14 Shaker Folk Songs. Brother Ricardo's interview and singing is included on the CD, Gentle Words - A Shaker Music Sampler. The Shaker song, "Living Souls Let's Be Marching," is also included on the CD and songbook, Love is Little.
The last known original Shaker song was written in 1959. It was titled "My Shaker Home" and it received its first modern day performance in a 2009 lecture and recital by Roger Lee Hall at Canterbury Shaker Village.
1960 - 1980
During the years 1960-61, the most extensive recording project on the Shakers was compiled and produced by Bill Randle, the Cleveland disc jockey who had introduced Elvis Presley on national television in 1956.
The 10 LP box set was privately printed as: The Shaker Heritage. Only 250 copies were made and distributed to museums and libraries. This set contained material about all aspects of Shaker culture: religion, history, education, poetry, cooking and music. All the music from this LP box set was compiled and edited by Roger Hall and made available on 2 CDs with illustrated booklet titled, Let Zion Move: Music of the Shakers
A songbook was published by the Shaker Village Work Camp (later called Work Group), titled: Songs of the Shakers. This summer work camp for teenagers was discussed in a 1996 article in the now-defunct magazine, SHAKERS WORLD. The article was written by Shaker scholar, Roger Hall, and is titled: "Singing at Shaker Village Work Camp."
Some of the Shaker tunes have been borrowed by other songwriters and folksingers.
Probably the best known one is "Lord of the Dance", written by Sydney Carter in 1963, and based on Joseph Brackett's Shaker dance tune, "Simple Gifts."
Another one is "Run, Shaker Life" by Richie Havens in the 1960s, based on another Shaker dance song, "Come Life, Shaker Life," by Issachar Bates.
In 1966, the first known television program about the Shaker heritage
was shown on a program titled: "What's New,"
a series on National Educational Television (NET). This program was about the Shaker Village Work Camp for teenagers on the site of the former Mt. Lebanon Shaker Community in New Lebanon, New York. The host of the program was Tony Saletan, who explained the Work Camp's activities and showed a music and dance performance by the teenagers at Hancock Shaker Village. Mr. Saletan also spoke briefly with Sister Mildred Barker at Sabbathday Lake, Maine, and he ended the program by singing "Simple Gifts." This NET program is included on The Shakers On Television DVD.
Six years later, in 1972, Roger Hall completed the first Master's Thesis devoted to Shaker music. Titled,The Shaker Letteral System: A Practical Approach to Music Notation, it was completed while he was a grad student at the State University of New York at Binghamton
(now Binghamton Unversity). Hear excerpts of his interviews with the Shakers on this CD,
Blended Together - Interviews with The Shakers
In 1976, music sung by the Sabbathday Lake Shakers was released on an LP album
with notes by Daniel W. Patterson.
This title is now available on Rounder CD and titled,
Early Shaker Spirituals
Also in 1976, a private pressing was made of an LP album titled: Harp of Joy. The notes were written by Roger L. Hall. This album featured one side of New England psalmody and the other side devoted to Shaker spirituals. The 13 Shaker songs, hymns and anthems included the famous dance song, "Simple Gifts," in a rare version recently discovered in a Shaker manuscript. This LP album has been out-of-print for a long time,
but all of Shaker music is now available on this CD: Gentle Words - A Shaker Music Sampler
In 1979, a massive collection of Shaker music by Daniel W. Patterson was published by Princeton University Press.
The book went out-of-print and was not available for many years.
It has been reprinted in a Dover paperback 2nd edition in 2000, under the same title: The Shaker Spiritual.
1981 - 1999
In 1981, the first of the "Shaker Song Series" appeared in The Shaker Messenger magazine. By the time this magazine had ceased publication in 1996, there were 56 Shaker hymns and songs featured in the Shaker music series, all transcribed and edited by Roger Hall.
Several recordings were made in the 1990s:
Simple Gifts - Shaker Chants and Spirituals with the Boston Camerata and Schola Cantorum; recorded at Sabbathday Lake, Maine.
Love is Little: A Sampling of Shaker Spirituals with Mitzie Collins, Roger Hall and other soloists, and The Sampler Chorus; recorded in Rochester, New York.
Joy of Angels: Shaker Spirituals for Christmas and the New Year with Mitzie Collins, Colleen Liggett, Randy Folger and other soloists, The Eastman Bach Children's Chorus (their recording debut) and The Sampler Chorus; recorded in Rochester, New York.
In 1999, all the music from the 10 LP set, The Shaker Heritage and a few interviews with several Shaker sisters was released on a 2 CD set from Rounder Records, with the Shakers narrating and performing their music. The greatest Shaker singer of the past fifty years was Sister Ruth Mildred Barker (1897-1990). She was the champion of Shaker music in Maine and spent countless hours singing and recording their music. She is a crucial part of this CD set.
The 2 CD set is titled: Let Zion Move: Music of the Shakers
Released by Rounder Records in 1999, it includes 40 Shaker spirituals sung by the Shakers from Canterbury, New Hampshire and Sabbathday Lake, Maine. It includes a history of Shaker music narrated by Sister Mildred Barker and Sister Lillian Phelps. There are also interviews with Sister Mildred Barker, Eldress Bertha Lindsay, and Sister Lillian Phelps. The interviews were made in 1960 by Bill Randle and in 1972 and 1980 by Roger Hall, who has also edited this unique historical collection. The set alsoincludes a 72 page illustrated booklet with historical background
and the words to all 40 of the Shaker spirituals.
Part Four: 21st Century Shaker Music>
For more information see
Books and Articles
CD and DVD Releases
Joseph Brackett's 'Simple Gifts'
Shaker Music Today
Are you interested in scheduling a lecture or concert on
Shaker music for your school, college, museum, church,
or other organization?
See the list of
Lectures and Workshops
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