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 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 and began in the 1780s. During the 18th and 19th centuries, the Shakers had thousands of members in New York State, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maine, Connecticut, Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana, and later on in Georgia and Florida.
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 tunes 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 music editions, arrangements and 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.
Shaker "Letteral" Music Notation
From about 1820 until nearly the end of the 19th century, The Shakers used their own form of alphabet music notation known as the "letteral system." Here is an example of an early Shaker song using "letteral notation" --
"Father James's Song" (or "In Yonder Valley") was composed in 1787 by Father James Whittaker at Enfield, Connecticut, one of the original Shaker leaders who emigrated from England in 1774. It is believed to be the first complete Shaker song with words and music.
Shaker letteral notation can be explained using the above example. The pitches are the same as the letters indicate. Quarter notes have just the letter of the alphabet (like G). Eighth notes have a single line over them and sixteenth notes have a double line over them. Half notes have a line on the left or right side of the letter.
Thus, the first measure has g (dotted quarter note) and a (eighth note), then g (quarter note) and e-d (two eighth notes). The next measure begins on C (half note) then D and E (quarter notes). The entire tune is in 4/4 (or Common Time) indicated by two double lines at the beginning of the tune. The dotted lines indicate the sections to be repeated. Unlike later Shaker songs, this song does not have the same number of measures in the two sections (A & B). The first or A section has 6 measures and the second B section has 12 measures. Later Shaker songs usually have 8 measures for both A and B sections.
Here is the tune transcribed into modern notation, edited by Roger Hall:
Shaker songs were the earliest ones and originated in the 1780s. They usually had only one verse, such as "Simple Gifts." Though the form is not always the same, they are often in two strains of 8 measures each with each section repeated with a form of AA + BB. The Shakers wrote songs throughout the 19th century and also, less frequently, in the 20th century.
Shaker hymns originally had melody only and often have this form A + BB. During the 1830s, some of their hymns were harmonized in three voice parts (soprano-tenor-bass). An example of an early harmonized hymn is "Ode to Contentment," recorded on the CD, Gentle Words - A Shaker Music Sampler.
After the 1870s, most of their hymns were in four parts (soprano-alto-tenor-bass) and many of them were printed in their published hymnals.
There are thousands of hymns in Shaker manuscript volumes and thousands more in printed Shaker hymnals. A Checlist of Printed Shaker Hymnals is included as a file on the DVD -- The Humble Heart
Around 1815, anthems began to be written, similar in style to early New England anthems by William Billings, except Shaker anthems had melody only.
By the 1840s, Shaker anthems began to be harmonized in three or four voice parts as well as melody only. After 1870, most of their anthems were in four voice parts (soprano-alto-tenor-bass).
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 would make a highly compelling dramatic film or a documentary.
If you would like to discuss this story treatment or use Shaker music in a feature film or documentary, write to:
"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).