Simple Living: Discover spiritual gifts of the Shakers

THIS WEEK, we’re exploring the spiritual gifts of Amish and Shakers. Here’s a link to our interview with Dr. Donald Kraybill, co-author of “The Amish Way.” TODAY, we’re introducing Roger L. Hall, a Shaker scholar and an independent publisher of multi-media materials about traditional American music.

How to find Roger Hall’s Simple Gifts tribute to Shaker Music

Roger L. Hall mainly works through his website where you’ll find the Shaker Music theme on the front page. If you’re interested in other areas of traditional American music, you’ll find lots of branches in this big website. The Shaker Music section of Roger Hall’s website offers lots of Shaker resources. Today, in our interview with Roger, we’re going to focus on one particular multimedia gem: “The Story of Simple Gifts: Joseph Brackett’s Shaker Dance Song,” which Hall sells on this page.

Why Supporting Shaker Culture Is So Important

In the second half of the 20th Century, a huge interest in Shaker spirituality, music, crafts and architecture blossomed into nonprofit groups that preserved many historical sites. However, in the decades after the American Bicentennial, and especially in tight financial times, tourism to historical sites has suffered nationwide. We reported on this critical problem in our American Journey series. Shaker historical groups are facing these same financial crunches. So, please consider supporting Roger Hall’s work through his website above—and support Shaker historical sites by visiting, paying an admission fee, eating a meal or contributing in some other way. The great American mystic Thomas Merton, whose home was in Kentucky, took inspiration from his visits to the Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill. Keeping these doors open may help produce and inspire future Mertons. (The photos with today’s story were taken by ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm on a recent trip to Pleasant Hill.)

Highlights of Our Interview with Roger L. Hall
on the Shaker classic “Simple Gifts”

DAVID: In your work, Roger, you travel widely through the remaining Shaker historical sites. I can’t think of a better person to give our readers a few tips on where to start their travels. I know that we can’t be exhaustive here. But give us a few of your best tips.

ROGER: The answer depends on what region people live in and where they plan to travel. Of course, Pleasant Hill in Kentucky is a great attraction because the village is so beautiful and people can stay there overnight. The Canterbury Shaker Village in New Hampshire now has a very fine restaurant, as well. That’s a wonderful part of the country to see autumn leaves, but their main schedule runs from May to October and anytime is great for a visit. They’re also open around Christmas. Of course, Sabbathday Lake in Maine is well worth a visit because there still are a few Shakers living there. Then, Hancock Shaker Village in Massachusetts is very popular because of its appealing location in the Berkshire area. They’ve got the round stone barn and there is a restaurant there. In Kentucky, people also might want to visit the Shaker Museum at South Union. Of course, travelers will want to check on the schedule at each village before going.

New York has a number of sites and at least three have some sort of museum. Near Albany, the Shaker Heritage Society supports the Watervliet site, and there are other locations. (The National Park Service also has a webpage about the Watervliet historical area.) There are sites at Mount Lebanon and Old Chatham in New York and they’re working together. There was a community at Sodus Bay on Lake Ontario, too, but there isn’t a large site there to visit. And, there are some other Shaker sites and buildings and historical markers in other locations. But I think most people who enjoy visiting Shaker sites tend to go to the larger villages that have the most attractions: Pleasant Hill, Canterbury and Hancock.

‘Til by turning, turning we come round right.

DAVID: That’s very helpful, thank you. My wife and I also have had a life-long interest in the Shakers; we’ve traveled to most of those sites and we certainly would agree with your tips. Now, let’s talk about your personal work in researching the roots of Simple Gifts. There’s not a more popular Shaker song. This melody runs through Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring into all kinds of other popular media. It’s in United Methodist songbooks, in TV commercials, in the Lord of the Dance stage show—all over the place. And the words echo in millions of memories:

‘Tis the gift to be simple
‘Tis the gift to be free,
‘Tis the gift to come down
Where we ought to be;
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gain’d,
To bow and to bend we shan’t be asham’d,
To turn, turn will be our delight
‘Til by turning, turning we come round right.

Many people assume that there is no individual behind this song. It’s often marked “anonymous” or “traditional,” but you’ve done the research to trace this song all the way back to Joseph Brackett, a Shaker from Maine who composed it in 1848. You published a paperback version of this story earlier, and now you’ve got a multimedia disk that people can order (through the link above) that includes the text of the book, plus photos and music and some video clips. So, tell us a little about Elder Joseph Brackett.

ROGER: He was mainly a religious leader, an elder in the church and his function was more than writing music. Music was more of a sideline for him. He was born in Maine. As a church leader, he traveled among a number of villages dealing with spiritual matters and the overall functioning of the villages. He wrote the song while he was in a village in Maine.

I don’t think he was musically trained, as far as I can tell from my research. There isn’t a lot of background material to find on this question, but I do believe that he picked up music as it was passed to him through the community. They felt it was a communal gift to be able to write music, a gift from God. They wrote about the experience as having inspirationally received a song.

DAVID: Why didn’t people know that Brackett wrote this song? Today, it’s easy to find out who wrote most songs. How did his name get lost?

ROGER: The difficulty is that they didn’t write down who wrote a song. In the case of Brackett, I’ve never found an original printed source that says it definitely was written by him. But I have found direct links to him through people who learned the song from other Shakers—and those links lead all the way back to Brackett. There are original references to him singing the song and teaching the song. The process for Shakers then was not the same as publishing and copyrighting something today.  In fact, that song might have been forgotten. The popularity of that song today is really thanks to Edward Deming Andrews, who published the song in a book about the Shakers. Then, Aaron Copland came across the book—and the song—as he was working on the Appalachian Spring ballet. This wasn’t just by accident. Martha Graham was doing the ballet with him and suggested that Copland look into the Shakers. So, through Martha Graham’s suggestion, he looked into Shaker material, found Andrews book, found the song and Copland then popularized Simple Gifts through Appalachian Spring.

DAVID: I’m familiar with Edward Deming Andrews and I think anyone who has visited a Shaker site’s bookstore has seen the Andrews’ books. But how did Martha Graham know about the Shakers? She was the one who commissioned this ballet and got Copland involved in composing the score. This was during World War II. Copland won the 1945 Pulitzer for music, thanks to the score for Appalachian Spring. The problem is that, by the time they were working on Appalachian Spring, the Shakers were in serious decline; they were all but gone in most places. How did Graham make the connection?

ROGER: In that era, there had been a renewed interest in American traditions. Remember that, during the Great Depression, people were trying to explore and preserve Americana at that time. There was another choreographer, Doris Humphrey, who had her own original work that she called The Shakers. She and Martha Graham might have spoken or Graham might have been familiar with Humphrey’s piece. 

DAVID: That era was just bursting with deep reflections on what America means—and those connections run through the story of what happened with Simple Gifts. Even that two-word title Appalachian Spring was a salute to the great, troubled poet Hart Crane, who wrote most of his best works in the late 1920s.

ROGER: There were a lot of people who were looking into traditional American culture at the time. There was an artist, Charles Sheeler, who had done some paintings of Shaker villages and Shaker rooms. What Copland was looking for was a way to interpret rural, rustic American experience. He wasn’t just exploring Shaker themes. Like these other artists, the Shaker theme seemed to fit and Copland used it.

‘A Journey That Would Take a Lifetime’

DAVID: Now, so many others have used the Simple Gifts theme, as well, or adapted the Copland music. Simple Gifts showed up in Reagan and Clinton inaugurations, you point out in writing about the song.

ROGER: Obama used it, too. John Williams did an arrangement called Air on Simple Gifts. It was also used at the funeral of Richard Nixon. The music covers the whole spectrum of political persuasions.

DAVID: What is it about that music, that song, that is so universally popular?

ROGER: People ask me that and it’s hard to say for sure. It’s not just the music and not just the words. It’s both.

DAVID: I don’t think most people truly understand the song. Perhaps that’s one reason it’s so important to read your book or explore your multimedia disk on Simple Gifts. The message is not really simple. Is that fair to say?

ROGER: Sometimes people interpret the words as saying: All you need is a simple life, but you don’t need a real spiritual path to follow. Just simplicity. For Shakers, this song wasn’t just about being simple. Their goal of being simple and humble wasn’t about just going out and looking at a beautiful sunset and feeling good. They saw this as part of a very serious religious journey—a journey that would take a lifetime.

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