A Shaker Song Discovery
Words to the Shaker song:
What the dew is to the flower,
Gentle words are to the soul,
And a blessing to the giver,
And so dear to the receiver
We should never withhold.
Gentle words, kindly spoken,
Often soothe the troubled mind,
While links of love are broken
By words that are unkind.
Then O, thou gentle spirit,
My constant Guardian be,
"Do to others," be my motto,
"As I'd have them do to me."
Back in 1974, while collecting research in Ohio for my first music collection, I discovered the beautiful song, "Gentle Words," in a manuscript music volume in Shaker letteral music notation (using letters of the alphabet instead of notes). I was immediately impressed with the song's poetic beauty, including the last two lines which are a paraphrase of the Golden Rule, as well as the lovely tune.
This song had been collected by Alma McGill Stoll (1855-1940), who lived with the Shakers from 1858 to 1877.
Her manuscript book was titled:
"A Collection of Songs, Hymns and Anthems, Selected and Written by Alma McGill, North Union, Ohio, April 21st 1872."
The North Union Shaker community was disbanded in 1889 and eventually became part of what is today the city of Shaker Heights, Ohio.
Alma McGill left the Shakers and married a man who had also lived with the North Union Shakers, Joseph Stoll (1857-1935).
In her music book it contains music from these Shaker communities:
North Union, Ohio
Pleasant Hill, Kentucky
Canterbury, New Hampshire
Union Village, Ohio
Groveland, New York
New Lebanon, New York
White Water, Ohio
Enfield, New Hampshire
New Gloucester (today - Sabbathday Lake), Maine
"Gentle Words" is credited to "PMR P. Hill" who was Sister Polly M. Rupe from Pleasant Hill, Kentucky.
This Shaker humility song was composed about 1867, just after the end of the Civil War. It was written perhaps as a reaction to the horrors of that bloody conflict, similar to the pacifist Shaker hymn, "A Prayer For The Captive."
My edited version of "Gentle Words," along with another song found in Alma McGill's music book, "Slow March" by Ephraim Frost, was published in my first music collection, A Western Shaker Music Sampler (Cleveland, Ohio: Western Reserve Historical Society, 1976). That was the first published edition of "Gentle Words."
I performed the song with several other singers at a Friends of the Shakers meeting at Sabbathday Lake, Maine in 1976. After that program, I was surprised but pleased when Sister Mildred Barker told me she remembered that song from her youth when she lived at the Shaker community in Alfred, Maine. Sister Marie Burgess was so moved by the words that she recited them in Sunday worship the next day at Sabbathday Lake.
"Gentle Words" was arranged by me for SATB chorus was in 1976 and it was performed by the Plymouth Church Choir of Shaker Heights, Ohio under the direction of John D. Herr. That version is included on the Gentle Words CD.
Years later, I found a slightly different version of "Gentle Words" in a Canterbury, New Hampshire Shaker music manuscript and my edition was published in The Shaker Messenger magazine. This edited version was included in the Love is Little songbook and CD by Sampler Records Ltd.
Since that time, this humility song has been recorded by the Enfield Shaker Singers, directed by Mary Ann Haagen, and by Randy Folger, former music interpreter at the Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill, Kentucky.
Also, it has been recorded on a popular CD performed by The Tudor Choir. It was my edition of "Gentle Words,""Almighty Savior" and a few other Shaker tunes that were used as source material by Kevin Siegfried for his arrangements on the Tudor Choir CD.
Since I first discovered it back in 1974, "Gentle Words" has become a meaningful song to those who feel the impact of its message, and it joins a few other Shaker songs that continue to grow in popularity.
--- Roger Lee Hall, 2014
Accompanying Lyrics Book
This informative book contains the lyrics and sources for all 25 Shaker songs, hymns and anthems on the CD. These Shaker spirituals originated in Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, New York, Ohio, and Kentucky. The book also includes a great deal of historical information and a rare interview with two past Canterbury Shaker sisters.
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"May We Ever Be United" -
Music of the North Union, Ohio Shakers