Jacob Glover, PhD., Program Manager
By all accounts, most readers of this blog, and probably anyone who has heard any examples of Shaker Music, will recognize the lyrics quoted above. Many of you all probably even hummed the tune along as you read these memorable words. Written in 1848, Simple Gifts is undoubtedly the most recognized song attributed to the Shakers.
Popularized by Aaron Copland’s 1944 composition Appalachian Spring, the melody entered the canon of American popular culture. Subsequently, English songwriter Sydney Carter used the same melody with his own, original lyrics to write the hymn “Lord of the Dance” in 1963—a tune that American congregations have sung in worship ever since! From there it gets complicated, but to put it simply, popular musicians, car companies, the American Olympic Committee and many other groups have utilized the melody in one version or another for their own purposes.
Due in large part to its popularity, Simple Gifts has come to be synonymous with Shaker music as a whole. Nothing, however, could be further from the truth.
As a group, the Shakers have written over 20,000 songs since their founding in 18th century England. At Pleasant Hill, songwriters and singers proliferated and produced a stunning collection of American music that still resonates to this day. Many of these songs, in fact, were notated in beautiful hymnals that we currently have in our archival collections!
It’s not just the sheer volume of Shaker music that’s impressive. The Shakers also wrote many different types of songs (hymns, anthems, marches, celebratory songs, and more) over the years, and different eras of Shaker history often led to remarkably different creations. Within the Shaker societies, active participation in worship through both singing and dancing was vital to community life. More than just a social and creative outlet for the Shakers, music also served devotional and instructional purposes while providing structure to the very rhythms of their daily life.
Shaker music can also shed fascinating insight into the lives of individual songwriters. The Pleasant Hill community, in fact, was widely regarded by other Shaker settlements as possessing quite a number of members with exceptional musical talent.
Patsy Williamson was one such individual. Born an enslaved person in North Carolina, Patsy was brought to Pleasant Hill in 1812 by her enslaver and family. Within a year, the Shaker community had purchased her legal freedom and Patsy quickly became an integral member of the growing sect. Patsy would spend the rest of her life as a good and faithful Shaker—and prolific songwriter—in Mercer County.
One of Patsy’s most exceptional creations, Pretty Mother’s Home, speaks to some of the core tenets of Shaker theology and her belief that one day she would have a “pretty home” in Heaven. These ideas—and the fact that they were shared through music—would have been eminently familiar and relatable to Shakers living in disparate communities across America at this time.
To hear Patsy’s song (and many others!) that together comprise a buried treasure of American music, come out to Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill and take part in our daily Shaker Music program that runs in the 1820 Meeting House at 11:00 am and 2:00 pm daily throughout the year.
I promise, there’s more to Shaker music than simple gifts, no matter how free they may be!