A Gift to be Simple

Maggie McAdams, Assistant Program Manager

“’Tis a gift to be simple, ‘tis a gift to be free, ‘tis a gift to come down where you ought to be…” 

The effortless spiral of The Trustees’ Office staircase, Pleasant Hill, KY.

Simplicity has become synonymous with the Shaker experience – as has the song Simple Gifts, emphasis on simple.  The most obvious visible manifestation of the Shaker legacy of simplicity can be seen today in the form and function of their architecture and furniture, but in reality this value infused all aspects of the Shaker’s life. What we see, however, was far from simple to achieve.

Today, the word simple has come to mean plain or easily done, basic or uncomplicated, but for the Shakers, it meant something so much more.    

The Shakers considered simplicity to be a sacred gift, one that members worked their entire lives to achieve.  Simplicity to the shakers meant modesty and humility, and was a constant reminder to focus on faith and their spiritual path.

In music written for Shaker worship, simplicity is often portrayed as a willow tree, humbly bowing, and bending, and being open to accept God’s gifts.  

“I will bow and be simple, I will bow and be free, I will bow and be humble, yea, bow like the willow tree.”

Shaker side chairs hang on pegs to reduce clutter, and to keep the space clean, Centre Family Dwelling, Pleasant Hill, KY.

Themes of simplicity can also be found in the Millennial Laws, the rules that the Shakers lived by. Upon entering the Pleasant Hill community, members deeded their personal possessions to the society, and were given modest goods and attire to meet their basic needs. 

All members lived communally and supported one another.  To live simply meant to shed all excess and focus on the inward path of the soul, rather than on pride and vanity and material goods.

Hand labor was thought to be good for the soul, and craftsmanship in this way became a symbol for moving closer to God.  “Put your hands to work, and your hearts to God.”

Detail view of the built-in dresser on the third floor of Centre Family Dwelling,
Pleasant Hill, KY.

To create a perfect piece of furniture was not an aesthetic pursuit, but a spiritual one.  Craftsmanship was not perfected for personal gain or glory, and the difficult process helped to teach members humility.  The Millennial Laws reiterated this by prohibiting signatures and unnecessary markings on items of manufacture so that the end product would not distract from the process and utility of the piece. 

The spiral staircase winds up three floors, and ends with a dome of light brought in by the dormer windows.

The Shakers wasted no design detail, and even their structures were built based upon functionality.  As a result they appear quite simple.  The peg lined walls, the large built-in cupboards, and the spacious floors of the dwelling houses – it took thoughtful design to create such orderly and simple spaces.

At Pleasant Hill, the dual spiral staircase in the Trustees’ Office is the perfect juxtaposition between the simple and the complex, as what appears to flow upward with such ease hides the intricacy that lies just beneath the surface.

Accessible through a stairwell door, the heavy structure that supports the staircase is an impressive work of engineering. The technical elements (like the massive timbers and the cantilevered steps), however, are concealed in favor of the simple and graceful free flowing aesthetic.  What we are left with in the upward movement of the staircase is the embodiment of simplicity, of elevating the spirit toward the light. 

Hidden beneath the simple exterior are the structural components of the spiral staircase, Trustees’ Office, Pleasant Hill, KY.

The next time you see the Trustees’ Office staircase, or a piece of Shaker furniture, or you hum the tune to Simple Gifts, or you hear the lines ”When true simplicity is gained,” remember that true simplicity was hard to achieve – but that’s what made it so worth striving toward.

Simplicity is a gift.

Sister Charlotte Tann: Strengthened by Faith

Holly Wood, Music Program Specialist

“And I am thankful I was called into the gospel when I was a child, and I am also thankful I can say, that I never turned my back on the way of God although I have had some very trying scenes of trouble and distress to pass through . . .” {1} – Sister Charlotte Tann at Pleasant Hill, Kentucky, 1841.

Based off census records, the far right figure is probably Charlotte Tann. c. 1870s

Here are a few examples of those “trying scenes”:

  • Living in the chaos of the 1811 New Madrid earthquake on the Western frontier, where aftershocks disrupted the isolated community for months.
  • The War of 1812 caused thirteen year old Charlotte Tann to flee from West Union Shaker Village with hundreds of pacifist Shakers on a 431 mile journey to safety.
  • Returning home after two years of war to discover her entire village destroyed.
  • Orphaned at age fifteen.
  • The closing of her childhood Shaker community and removal to Pleasant Hill, Kentucky.

When the Indiana community formally closed, Charlotte Tann was assigned by the Shaker ministry to live as a free person of color in Kentucky, a slave owning state.

How did this woman of faith, this unsung pioneer, face the difficulties of her life?

Tann’s testimony reflects the perseverance of a woman who’s trying life did not break her. She survived loss, disease, war and grappled with societal inequities while staying devoted and strengthened by the faith.

“And now I will give myself up to Mother and her good work, and labor to gather in a substance and treasure up the gospel into my own soul, for it is my unshaken faith and resolution to abide and endure to the end, let what will come.” {2}

Her faith compelled her to heal and to flourish. As believers in gender equality, the Shakers recognized the spiritual gifts of both women and men. Pleasant Hill had a wealth of women who wrote beautiful Shaker hymns and, unlike so many women in the world, the Shaker women were recognized as the composers.

Image of “Give Ear O My Children” from Benjamin Dunlavy’s Song Book, 1844-45.

Sister Charlotte was referred to as an “inspired instrument,” or, led by God to compose. She wrote many songs, including “Give Ear O My Children,” which admonishes all bondage and hails freedom, love and kindness as the tools to gain entry to Mother’s heaven above.

Upon the passing of this resilient woman in 1875, the Pleasant Hill Shakers reflected on her as a tower of faith:

  “And thus has fallen another Veteran that has stood since childhood through many trying scenes . . . She is worthy of much honor, for She has been a faithful and zealous Surporter of the cause.” {3}

Learn more about Sister Charlotte Tann, and the stories of other Shakers from Pleasant Hill, on tours conducted daily at Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill.

{1} Testimony of Charlotte Tann, “Testimonies of the Pleasant Hill Shakers,” WR-VI-B49 pp. 38-40
{2} Ibid
{3} Filson Club:  Bohon Shaker Collection.  Volume 16 of 40 volumes. 
A Ministerial Journal.  October 24, 1868 – September 30, 1880.  March 15, 1875. Page 140.

“‘Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free…”

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!

Instead of traditional music notation, the Shakers used ‘letteral’ notation, so that all members of their communities could participate and sing along. –“A Hymn Book, Containing a Collection of Ancient Hymns…Compil’d and Recorded by Paulina Bryant,” Item 361, Library of Congress Shaker Collection

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.

The 1820 Meeting House at Pleasant Hill was built to allow the Shakers to worship in their unique style. During services, the Shakers used no musical instruments. They regarded human voices as the ideal instruments for worship.

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!

Pausing for Thought at Shaker Village

We have exciting news! For the first time in its series history, Live From Lincoln Center takes its show on the road, presenting performances by The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center (CMS) filmed right here in 2015. Live From Lincoln Center’s “Simple Gifts: The Chamber Music Society at Shaker Village” will air tonight, Friday, September 9, at 9:30 pm on PBS.

We are thrilled to present our 11th annual Chamber Music Festival of Bluegrass in partnership with CMS artistic directors David Finckel and Wu Han in May 2017.  In anticipation of tonight’s big premier, Finckel shares his thoughts about the Festival:

With the sun’s warm rays raking the pasture to my left, I watch two men – one from France carrying a violin, and one from New York carrying a viola – ascend the side staircase to perform the first concert of the Chamber Music Festival of the Bluegrass. I can’t believe I sat here exactly ten years ago and did the same thing: yes, this is the tenth anniversary season of a now-historic partnership between Shaker Village and the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center

When a gentleman named George Foreman (no, not the prizefighter, but the former director of performing arts at Centre College in Danville) and I grabbed a bite to eat together some twelve years ago in an Applebee’s, George proposed the idea of a chamber music festival in a nearby Shaker village. Having been an American antiques aficionado all my life, and a particular fan of Shaker furniture and architecture, it took very little work to imagine the setting. A trip to the village to look at the tobacco barn which was proposed for the concerts confirmed the viability of the project, and just like that, we were off on the always-wild and perilous ride of a performing arts startup.

During the first critical ten years, the trustees of Shaker Village took ownership of the festival and truly made it an integral part of their mission. The Village’s entire staff, from cooks to groundskeepers to carpenters, now know us, and we know them. When we return here each May, we reconnect with our Kentucky family. It is a truly joyous time.

I’m sure that as the Village was considering the move to formally adopt this festival, the question must have come up as to how the culture of chamber music would fit into and connect with that of the Shakers. The Shakers, from what I’ve learned, were apparently not big on music, save for hymns. So how would five concerts in a weekend filled with music by Austrians, Russians, Germans, French, Norwegians (among others) composed over the last four hundred years, and performed by musicians hailing from some eighteen different countries, find an appropriate place in a village built with such a clear and strong mission of its own? This question kept me up at night, a bit.

At the risk of sounding presumptuous, it didn’t take me long to come to a conclusion that what we were going to do did indeed align with so much of what this miraculous place is all about. I’m not prepared to categorically state that playing classical music is a faith-based profession; however, there is not a serious musician I know who does not sense working for a higher authority. For us performers, that father figure is always the composer; we are on the stage to represent the great geniuses of our art. And for those composers, from where did this great music come? I’m equally sure that each of them would likely characterize themselves as simply vessels, through which divine inspirations found their way to ink and paper. Indeed, the music we play is imbued with such timeless greatness that we freely admit: it is much better than it can ever actually be played. We performers are therefore on an endless, yet joyful quest, in search of an ever-better interpretation, one more compelling, beautiful, and fulfilling of the composer’s dream.

On the Dixie Belle

2016 Chamber Music Festival musicians enjoy an evening on The Dixie Belle Riverboat at Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill

While ruminating on potential paths of logic for our residency in Shaker Village, a further turn of thought opened up another perspective: that of the composer. Many of the giants of our art – Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Schumann and Brahms – never made it to the New World. But one of them, the Czech master Antonín Dvořák, did come to America in the 1890’s, summoned to head the new National Conservatory in New York and to assist our nation in finding its own musical voice (American composers had been imitating European styles since the 18th century). Dvořák found roots for a distinctly American tradition in the music and dances of African and Native Americans, imbuing his now-iconic works composed here with genuine American spirit. I believe that not only Dvořák, but all of his mighty predecessors would have not only been fascinated by and admiring of the Shakers, but might well have composed music inspired by their spiritual principles and incomparable work ethic

My assumption – that composers long gone, who never set foot in America, would be thrilled that their music was being played on such storied ground – seals my personal case for feeling that when I come here, I come not to intrude, but to be “kindly welcomed” and to contribute to this place art which extols decency, was created through both divine inspiration and plenty of hard work, and like this place, has stood the test of time, existing today with endless energy, relevance, and beauty.

David Finckel, Artistic Director, Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center

Live From Lincoln Center’s “Simple Gifts: The Chamber Music Society at Shaker Village” will air tonight, September 9, 2016, at 9:30pm on PBS. Click here to learn more.

Pre-order the Simple Gifts CD >>