Music of the American Shakers -
Resources and Recordings
Five recent publications
by Shaker music scholar,
Roger Lee Hall
"The Best Choice":
A Sampling of American Communal Hymns
Interviews with The Shakers
The Discovery and Popularity of a Shaker Dance Song
"Give Us This Day":
Two Historic American Choral Music Traditions
"May We Ever Be United":
Music of the North Union, Ohio Shakers
Shaker music in our time
Too many people know too little about music of the American Shakers (also known as: The United Society of Shakers).
Many people know and enjoy the best known Shaker song titled "Simple Gifts" (aka: 'Tis the gift to be simple).
But only a small number of researchers and musicians have bothered to investigate further any other Shaker music, which numbers in the thousands of original tunes composed over several centuries.
There has been too much emphasis on the first book about Shaker music by Edward Deming Andrews, first published in 1940 (reprinted in 1962 and 1967). Much research has been done since that book was published.
The last remaining Shaker community is located at Sabbathday Lake, Maine which has a museum and research library (open by appointment).
The Shaker music information on this site was written by Roger Lee Hall, an ethnomusicologist, composer and singer. He is one of the world's foremost authorities on Shaker music, having researched it and performed it for over 40 years.
Read about his extensive work with Shaker music -- click here
For over two centuries, the Shakers have produced an amazing amount of music estimated to be well over 10,000 tunes and texts in manuscripts and over 2,000 tunes in their printed hymnals.
One of the most glaring errors made by researchers is classifying all Shaker music as "songs."
There are actually three main types of Shaker music:
--single verse songs (for example, "Simple Gifts")
--multi-verse hymns (for example, "The Humble Heart")
--through-composed or prose anthems (for example, "Mount Zion")
There are also many sub-categories of Shaker music, such as: gift songs, dance songs, inspirational hymns, gospel anthems, and others.
Because of their highly inspirational nature, like the Afro-American singing tradition, Shaker tunes are best classified together as "Shaker spirituals."
Because it is religious folk music, Shaker tunes are often thought to be by unknown Shaker composers. Not true!
Many of the Shaker spirituals are credited to Shaker brethren and sisters and sometimes both are credited for a single Shaker spiritual, such as the beautiful Shaker hymn, "The Humble Heart, with words by Eunice Wyeth and music by Thomas Hammond Jr., both from the Harvard Shaker community in Massachusetts.
Often the discussion of Shaker music is misleading or incomplete in books and articles, including those published by university presses, who fail to list available recordings and also sometimes fail to list the latest Shaker music research. Some have identified Shaker music as being just "Traditional" or "Anonymous." That is inaccurate since many Shaker spirituals have been credited to a Shaker member.
For example: "Give Good Gifts" by Sister Martha Jane Anderson
Their earliest music came from an English folk song tradition. Their earliest church leaders also wrote songs. For example, Mother Anne Lee, the spiritual head of their church wrote songs, also Father James Whittaker, who wrote what is believed to be the first complete Shaker song with words and music in 1787:
"Father James's Song (aka: In Yonder Valley)."
Sometimes a Shaker song is arranged by a non-Shaker musician. One of the best known Shaker quick dance songs is
"Come Life, Shaker Life". In the late 1960s this Shaker song was arranged as a folk-rock song, "Run, Shaker Life" by Richie Havens, without credit given to the original Shaker dance song or to its composer, Issachar Bates.
The same lack of credit for a Shaker composer is true for the best known Shaker song, sung or played at three inauguration ceremonies for U.S. Presidents (Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama). Titled, "Simple Gifts," it was composed in 1848 by Elder Joseph Brackett Jr. It has been common to list this song with incorrect titles such as:
"The Gift to be Simple" or "Tis a Gift to be Simple," which were never used when this song was composed and sung in the 19th century. There have been numerous recorded arrangements of "Simple Gifts." For example, Judy Collins, Aaron Copland, Roger Lee Hall,
John Williams and others. There was also a popular folk song, "Lord of the Dance," by English songwriter, Sydney Carter, which is based on the "Simple Gifts" tune.
Giving Credit Where It Is Due
Some writers and musicians have failed to give proper credit to the those who have worked on Shaker music.
Two of the most active music researchers and compilers have been Roger L. Hall and Daniel W. Patterson. Both have published an extensive amount of Shaker music and Hall has also performed Shaker music in concerts and composed new music based on Shaker texts.
Others who have edited Shaker music include: Anne Azema, Donald Christenson, Joel Cohen, Milzie Collins, Randy Folger, Christian Goodwillie, Mary Ann Haagen, Colleen Liggett, Carol Medlicott, Donna Phillips.
Many Shaker tunes would be suitable for solo or chorus performance, providing they have been edited or arranged properly.
There's enough material available that colleges or universities could spend a whole semester discussing Shaker music and its connections to other communal societies and to American culture in general.
Since most of the early Shaker music was in alphabet music notation -- what they called "letteral notation" -- it is necessary to transcribe their tunes and make them readable in conventional music notation. For more about this notation, see the Master's Thesis by Roger Hall: "The Shaker Letteral System: A Practical Approach to Music Notation" (Binghamton University, 1972).
Often it is just the music arranger who gets credit, not the music editor who first discovered it and made it available in a performing edition.
Note to musicians, publishers, researchers, academics and students:
Please give proper credit to the editors of Shaker music or the published title of a music collection.
All the material on this website is copyrighted.
Should you wish to publish any original illustrations or information
please give credit to American Music Preservation.com
To write for permission to reproduce any material for publication -- click here
Shaker Music Triptych
A major resource series by Roger Lee Hall
No. 1: "The Humble Heart" -
A Forty Year Survey of Shaker Music
(PineTree Productions, 2016)
No. 2: "Give Good Gifts"
Shaker Music in the 20th Century
(PineTree Productions, 2015)
No. 3: "SIMPLE GIFTS"
Great American Folk Song
by Roger Lee Hall
(PineTree Press, 2014)
Shaker Music Scholar Honored in Who's Who
Roger Lee Hall, the distinguished ethnomusicologist and American music preservationist and one of the leading authorities on Shaker music, has received the high honor of being listed in two highly regarded directories:
Who's Who in America and Who's Who in the World
To read about his extensive music research -- CLICK HERE
See also his music lectures and workshops -- CLICK HERE
Mr. Hall's piano composition, "Seven Variations on a Shaker Marching Tune"
is included on this new CD, AMERICAN PLACES - Musical Travels
Shaker music history
Read about "Simple Gifts,"
the best known Shaker song,
"A Prayer for the Captive"
A Civil War era hymn
sung in memory of
President Abraham Lincoln
Shaker Music Broadsides
A series of attractive 8 1/2 X 11 broadsides in full color.
This series includes
the words and/or music to selected Shaker songs,
edited by Roger Hall,
with colorful art design by Gail Hall.
They make ideal gifts and are suitable for framing.
There are currently six Shaker song titles in this series:
No. 1: "Simple Gifts" (Elder Joseph Brackett Jr., Alfred, Maine, 1848)
[First line: 'Tis the gift to be simple 'tis the gift to be free]
No. 2: "Blended Together" (Elder Joseph Holden, Mt. Lebanon, New York, ca. 1870)
[First line: Blended together as one we stand]
No. 3: "Love is Little" (South Union, Kentucky, ca. 1834)
[First line: Love is little, love is low ]
No. 4: "May I Softly Walk" (Mt. Lebanon, New York, 1869)
[First line: May I softly walk and wisely speak]
No. 5: "Welcome, Welcome" (Enfield, New Hampshire, 1869)
[First line: Welcome, welcome precious gospel kindred]
No. 6: "We Will All Go Home With You" (Canterbury, New Hampshire, 1862)
[First line: We will all go home with you, home to worlds of glory]
To order any of these colorful broadsides,
go to the
Original Shaker Music Recordings
Contrary to what many writers have written, Shaker music is not all anonymous or "traditional."
In fact, a large number of their songs, hymns and anthems are credited to Shaker authors and composers. Many Shaker spirituals were written by a Shaker sister or brother, who wrote the words and/or the music.
For example these Shaker spirituals...
"Let Zion Move" by Eldress Mary Ann Gillespie
CD: Let Zion Move
"Blended Together" by Elder Joseph Holden
CD: Blended Together
Two of the most important CD releases are on Rounder Records with 40 spirituals each,
sung by the Shakers, with background notes by two authorities on the subject:
Early Shaker Spirituals:
The United Society of Shakers,Sabbathday Lake Maine,
with CD notes by Daniel W. Patterson
Let Zion Move: Music of the Shakers
2 CD set and illustrated booklet,
with CD notes by Roger L. Hall
Shaker Music Series
"Celestial Praises" - A Celebration of Shaker Spirituals
Arrangements by Roger Lee Hall and Conrad Held
25 Premiere Recordings!
Performed by The Canterbury Singers and Guest Soloists,
Kathryn Southworth, Director
"Gentle Words" - A Shaker Music Sampler
Compiled by Roger Lee Hall
"Blended Together" - Interviews with The Shakers
Compiled by Roger Lee Hall
Shaker vs. Non-Shaker Tunes
Shaker Music Arrangements
for concerts or other performances
Shaker Music Preservation Series
Deluxe DVD: A Shaker Music Miscellany
Shaker Music For Concerts, Recordings, and Films
If you are looking for one or more Shaker spirituals to perform in a concert
or to include on a recording, or a film
see these links:
Shaker music arrangements
Shaker music series
Attention film makers and documentary producers!
Shaker music can make an ideal accompaniment for your film
Shaker music for film
Checklist of Most Recorded Shaker Tunes
The list of the Most Recorded Shaker Tunes
between 1961 and 2011
is included on this DVD:
Book, CD and Theater Reviews
ANGEL REAPERS (Martha Clarke and Alfred Uhry)
AS IT IS IN HEAVEN (Arlene Hutton)
Related Links on this site
"The Best Choice" - A Sampling of American Communal Hymns
Shaker music books and articles
Shaker and Non-Shaker Tunes
Shaker lectures and workshops
Shaker music arrangements
Shaker music in our time
Shaker music news
Shaker music on CDs and DVDs
Shaker music discoveries
"Shaker music speaks to the heart" (The Lewiston Journal, July 18, 1987)
"Simple Gifts" (multi-media computer disc about the best-known Shaker song)
This information about Shaker music here on American Music Preservation.com was revised and updated from an earlier site known as AMERICAN SHAKER MUSIC available Online between 1998 and 2005 and no longer active.
However, links to it are still available for reference at Shaker Pedia.
Please help support the educational mission of this website.
Order music books, CDs or DVDs at the
Please remember to credit this website
When using any of the information found on these pages
please give credit to ethnomusicologist, Roger Lee Hall
For any questions, write to:
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