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The Simple Gifts
Shaker Music in America

by Roger Lee Hall

Part Three: "Simple Gifts" - The 20th Century

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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 Universa,l" are performed by the Canterbury and Sabbathday Lake Shakers on this 2 CD set: Let Zion Move: Music of the Shakers

After the 1908 hymnal was published, only a small number of hymns and songs were written during the 20th century.

One of the 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. It is sung by Eldress Bertha Lindsay and Sister Lillian Phelps on Let Zion Move: Music of the Shakers.

In 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: one in 1956 and another in 1962.

Brother Ricardo Belden was interviewed in the 1950s 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 a 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. "Living Souls Let's Be Marching" is also included on the CD and songbook, Love is Little.

On October 30, 1944, the ballet Appalachian Spring was premiered at the Library of Congress by the Martha Graham Dance Company. The score was composed by Aaron Copland who included a set of variations on the Shaker dance song, "Simple Gifts" (aka: "Tis the gift to be simple"). Copland's arrangement has helped to make this Shaker song known throughout the wqorld. For an interview with Copland -- see Simple Gifts: Great American Folk Song.

The last known Shaker song, "My Shaker Home," was composed by Sister Lillian Phelps in 1959. For a tribute to her -- click here

Two Shaker dance songs
popular in the 20th century


"Simple Gifts" -- This is the best known Shaker song composed by Joseph Brackett Jr. at the Shaker community in Alfred, Maine in 1848. It was originally written for religious dancing, sometimes called a "Quick Dance." It is incorrect to call it a HYMN since the Shakers did not classify it that way in the 19th century when it was written.

Here is Roger Lee Hall's arrangement of this song, performed by The Canterbury Singers, Directed by Katherine Southworth
and available on the CD album, "Celestial Praises - A Celebration of Shaker Spirituals" --

Read more about this song at: Joseph Brackett's "Simple Gifts"


"Come Life, Shaker Life" -- Issachar Bates composed this quick dance song about 1835, and before joining the Shakers he had been a fifer in the American Revolution and afterwards a Baptist song leader. He joined the Shakers in 1801 and he was the first Shaker major tunesmith and made missionary journeys to Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana. He was also a church elder at various communities before returning to New Lebanon, NY in 1835.

Here is the song sung by the Sabbathday Lake Shakers in Maine from their album,, "Early Shaker Spirituals"-- click here

Read more at: Issachar Bates and "Come Life, Shaker Life"

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 Presleyd 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 album set is now available on Let Zion Move: Music of the Shakers

In 1962, 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 magazine, SHAKERS WORLD. The article was written by Shaker scholar, Roger Hall, and is titled: "Singing at Shaker Village Work Camp."

Some of their 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, 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. This program was about the Shaker Village Work Camp at New Lebanon, New York for teenagers. 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."

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 Shaker sisters from Canterbury, New Hampshire and Sabbathday Lake, Maine on this CD,

Blended Together - Interviews with The Shakers

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.


© Photograph by Gail M. Hall, 1974.

Roger Hall introduced Aaron Copland, to the Shakers from Sabbathday Lake in Shaker Heights, Ohio in 1974. It was their first and only meeting. Read more about it -- click here.

An LP album was released in 1976 with music performed by the Sabbathday Lake Shakers with notes by Daniel W. Patterson and titled,

This title is now available on CD at this link:

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 was 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.

Two interviews were recorded by Roger Lee Hall in 1980:

Aaron Copland at his home on July 21
Sister Mildred Barker on December 13 at Sabbathday Lake, Maine

Both interviews are included on this multi-media DVD:

"SIMPLE GIFTS": Great American Folk Song



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.

One year later, his edited music collection was published by Fruitlands Museums and titled, The Happy Journey: Thirty-Five Shaker Spirituals Compied by Miss Clara Endicott Sears --

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 R. 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 R. Mildred Barker and Sister Lillian Phelps. There are also interviews with Sister Mildred Barker, Eldress Bertha Lindsay, and Sister Lillian Phelps. The interviews were done in 1960-61 by Bill Randle, and in 1972 and 1980 by Roger Hall, who also edited this unique historical collection. The set also has a 72 page illustrated booklet with many illustrations and the words to all 40 of the Shaker spirituals.

The last known Shaker song was written in 1959, "My Shaker Home,"
by Sister Lillian Phelps. This song received its first concert performance by Roger Lee Hall in his program presented at Canterbury Shaker Village in 2009.
An arrangement of this song is on the CD: Celestial Praises - A Celebration of Shaker Spirituals.


The United Society of Believers (or Shakers) have had a long and productive history. Their music, which spans over two centuries, will continue to inspire those who recall the Shaker faith reflected in Mother Ann Lee's famous statement:

Put Your Hands To Work,
And Your Hearts To God.

There are several songs with similar words expressed:

"Put Thy Hands To Work" in Love is Little: A Sampling of Shaker Spirituals

"Join Together Heart and Hand" - No. 30 in the Shaker Music Series

-- By Roger Lee Hall, 2013

CDs and multi-media DVDs

CD: "Blended Together" - Interviews with The Shakers

CD: "Celestial Praises" - A Celebration of Shaker Spirituals
Arrangements by Roger Lee Hall and Conrad Held

CD: "Gentle Words" - A Shaker Music Sampler

DVD: "Give Good Gifts" - Shaker Music in the 20th Century

DVD: "Simple Gifts": Great American Folk Song

For more information see

Books and Articles

CD and DVD Releases

Joseph Brackett's 'Simple Gifts'

The Simplicity of Shaker Music


Music Programs

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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