The television and newspaper journalists like to portray the Shakers as soon becoming extinct or already gone. While it is true there are only a few Shakers left, they remain busy with their religious life, as well as operating a library, museum and gift shop during the regular tourist season from May to October. The last remaining Shaker community is located at Sabbathday Lake, Maine. with an active Friends of the Shakers support group.
The music of the Shakers contains some of the most beautiful religious folk melodies from America's past. It is also among the oldest singing traditions in the USA.
For several centuries, from the 1780s to 1950s, there were over 10,000 Shaker tunes composed -- the largest output of any religious communal society in America.
Much of their music remains unknown today to the general public and musicians, except for the Shaker song, "Simple Gifts," which was first arranged by Aaron Copland.
It is often assumed that because it is folk music, all Shaker spirituals are anonymous. Not true!
Unfortunately, there has been a great deal of incorrect information spread around about Shaker music by writers who have failed to do enough research before writing their articles or books. They are seemingly unaware of the vast amount of Shaker music recordings available.
The most common error is classifying all Shaker music as traditional hymns or songs. That is incorrect and misleading. There are actually three broad categories of Shaker music:
It is not generally known that there were "white" (or Anglo-American) spirituals as well as "black" (or Afro-American) spirituals. Both types have a folklike, deeply emotional and sometimes frenzied connection between words and music.
Shaker tunes are examples of religious folk music, including lively dance tunes, "gift" songs, millennial hymns, prose anthems and other music types. They are best classified together as: Shaker spirituals.
The earliest known Shaker songs in America were written in the 1780s.
What is believed to be the first complete Shaker song with words and music was "In Yonder Valley"(aka: Father Jame's Song), composed in 1787 by Father James Whittaker, one of the original Shaker leaders who emigrated from England in 1774.
Shaker songs generally had only one verse, such as "Simple Gifts." The Shakers wrote songs throughout the 19th century and also, less frequently, in the 20th century.
The last known Shaker song was in 1959 by Sister Lillian Phelps. The song is titled:"My Shaker Home." This song received its first public performance fifty years later, when performed at Canterbury Shaker Village in 2009.
The first hymns were written about 1805 and the first printed hymnal, Millennial Praises, was published in 1812-13, but with texts only and no music.
Shaker hymns originally had melody only but during the 1830s, some of their hymns were harmonized in three voice parts (soprano-tenor-bass) or four parts (soprano-alto-tenor-bass). An example of an earlier harmonized hymn is "Ode to Contentment," recorded on the CD, Gentle Words - A Shaker Music Sampler
For a list of Shaker music books and articles ,
A story treatment is available for consideration by filmmakers or producers interested in a making a film about the most prominent early Shaker church leaders, such as Mother Ann Lee and Father James Whittaker, who were also singers and songwriters.
The story of their early years in England and their triumph over persecution and prejudice, and their early missionary travels
through New England and the Midwest would make a highly compelling dramatic film or a documentary.
The hauntingly beautiful Shaker music would be ideal
for the film's soundtrack.
Inquiries about this story treatment and music should be directed to:
"How Happy Are They"
Twelve Shaker Spirituals
from Kentucky and Ohio Edited and Arranged by Roger L. Hall
(PineTree Music, 2007)
2007 marked the bicentennial of the Shaker community at South Union, Kentucky. To commemorate that bicentennial anniversary, Roger Hall has compiled this songbook which includes arrangements of two South Union Shaker hymns: "The Morning Sun" and "The Millennium." They are included in this music collection:
1. A Welcome Song -- Polly M. Rupe, Pleasant Hill, Kentucky, 1869
2. Hymn: Typical Dancing -- Richard McNemar/ Polly M. Rupe, Pleasant Hill, 1809
3. Hymn: Farewell Vain World -- Samuel Hooser, Pleasant Hill, 1833
4. I Want to be Living & Free -- South Union, KY
5. Hymn: The Morning Sun -- South Union, 1847 (arr. Roger Hall)
6. Hymn: The Millennium -- South Union, 1847 (arr. Roger Hall)
7. Hymn: How Happy Are They -- Richard McNemar, Watervliet, Ohio, 1833
8. Hymn: Invitation to Souls -- Matilda A. Butler, Whitewater, Ohio, 1846
9. Hymn: On The Birthday of Mother Ann --
James S. Prescott, North Union, Ohio, 1850
10. A Dream -- Harvey L. Eades, Union Village, Ohio
11. Hymn: Doxology -- Oliver C. Hampton, Union Village, 1856
12. My Dear Companions Let's Move On -- Union Village, 1850s
Some of these songs and hymns are available on these CDs:
"May We Ever Be United"
Music of the North Union, Ohio Shakers Compiled and Edited by Roger Lee Hall (PineTree Press, 2012)
This music collection, compiled and edited by Shaker music scholar, Roger Lee Hall, includes a representative sampling of 15 tunes from the Shaker community at North Union. The material was compiled from many years of research and includes source identifications and the most complete information about composers and music from this northern Ohio Shaker community (today known as Shaker Heights).