The great tangled rope of popular music (American and otherwise) includes so many disparate strands that to speak of it as a single “thing” invites ridicule: show tunes and jazz, bluegrass and ragtime, country, folk, rock, metal, rap, and hip-hop… And then what about “easy listening”? and popular classical music, like Gershwin’s and Copland’s? New Age? Heck, what about Christmas music?
So in declaring (as I did) that this What’s in a Song series would explore “American popular songs with long histories,” well, I might as well have announced upfront that anything listenable was fair game.
Under the circumstances, inevitably, I’d find myself bumping into the category known loosely as “sacred music” — at least, those bits of it which have percolated out into pop culture. Off the top of my head, only two songs in this category appealed to me as subjects. The first, “Amazing Grace” — okay, that’s been tackled by an impressive roster of pop artists. But I have one problem with celebrating “Amazing Grace,” beautiful though it is: few performers seem able to resist milking its very “sacredness.” What emerges from the throats of such performers isn’t a song about grace, even about the special grace of music: it’s a song about the singer.
But almost by definition, the other song has resisted manipulation at the hands of the lugubriously self-righteous. That song is the subject of this two-part post.
The religious denomination commonly known as Shakers — its “real” name the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, or simply Believers — has influenced American culture way beyond what you might imagine from the actual numbers. Over the course of two centuries its adherents totaled about 20,000*; the most at any one time — and that, in the first half of the 19th century– was only around 6,000. Yet Shaker crafts, Shaker style, and indeed Shaker ideals have permeated the culture for decades.
This can seem a little weird. I mean, the Shakers’ whole raison d’etre was a set of beliefs corresponding to no mainstream theology. Just for starters, central to their religious practice was lifelong celibacy — which is to say, they could increase their numbers only by converting new adult members and, on occasion, adopting children. (Needless to say, this practice also lost them quite a few members over time.)
Furthermore, as a result, ultimately, of certain domestic experiences in the life of their founder, Mother Ann Lee, they envisioned a Heaven watched over by dual male and female godheads. (Imagine that.) (Seriously: imagine that.) And so on.
Then there was the actual practice of their worship: the rhythmic and sometimes ecstatic dancing from which the sect’s common name originated, clapping, trembling, falling to the floor exhausted; the men arrayed on one side of the meeting room, the women on the other, or in concentric rings, surrounding the unaccompanied singers. I’ve read of neighboring towns and cities — out in the World, as the Shakers said — organizing Sunday field trips just to attend these services, to laugh incredulously at their hosts’ crazy antics. Before Vaudeville, there were New Lebanon and New Gloucester, South Union and Hancock, and any of the hundreds of other other Shaker villages scattered around America.
The Shakers referred to their singing and dancing as laboring, because they viewed it as an essential work of worship even though — especially because? — they abandoned themselves so utterly to the experience. Committed to asexuality, you might say, they took very seriously what ecstasy they could find.
Hundreds of separately-collected Shaker songbooks survive. Among their contents, the lyrics of many songs were never written down, because they consisted of plain, wordless vocalizations. And the music was always vocal, because the Shakers resisted using instrumentation until late in the group’s history. Daniel W. Patterson’s The Shaker Spiritual says:
The World had used instruments “to excite lasciviousness, and to stimulate men to destroy each others lives”… Shakers might sing about [celestial] harps and timbrels, trumps and organs, but they chose to sing without them.
But as Patterson also points out, going strictly a capella accomplished other ends: it encouraged communal participation in the music (as opposed to sitting and listening, however prayerfully, while a professional musician performed), and it kept things simple: accessible to singers of modest vocal talents.
Which brings us, finally — after turning, turning — to Elder Joseph Brackett, Jr. (That’s him in the photograph at the top of this post.)
Brackett was not the first Shaker tunesmith. That title probably goes to one Isaachar Bates (1758-1837), whose greatest hit, so to speak, was “Come Life, Shaker Life,” in 1835.** Nevertheless, Brackett was perhaps the most memorable Shaker songwriter.
[Left: Elder Joseph Brackett's death notice, from The Shaker Manifesto, August, 1882]
Born in 1797 as Elisha, he changed his name a few years later when his entire family converted to Shakerism and joined the community at Gorham, Maine. Over the years, he grew naturally both in his faith and his musical talents. Eventually he became the first minister and an Elder at the community of New Gloucester, Maine (later and more picturesquely known as Sabbathday Lake). A contemporary, Elder Otis Sawyer, once described Brackett thusly:
He possessed a remarkable and natural gift to sing by which he would often fill a whole assembly with the quickening power of God with his inspiration of song.
Another account paints a picture of him singing his greatest song, “turning with his coattails flying.” Not exactly a stuffy old mystic, eh? (Indeed, he sounds in this respect positively Sufic.)
And what of that greatest song? Brackett “received” it (as the Shakers said) in 1848; Roger L. Hall, a musicologist with a special interest in “Simple Gifts,” correlated various manuscript and songbook versions to determine that it was probably composed in late spring or early summer of that year, at a Shaker community in Alfred, Maine.
Nowadays, many interpreters of the song fall into the theatrically-humble school of performance; they sing it slowly, reverently, and — as they seem to think, not recognizing the contradiction — with exaggerated simplicity. Fact is, though, “Simple Gifts” was composed as one of a category called “dance songs.” As Hall puts it in his Joseph Brackett’s “Simple Gifts“: Evolution of a Shaker Dance Song (2000, Pinetree Press): “Since it was intended for dancing, it should be sung with a lively tempo.”
Music and tempo aside, consider the lyrics:
(Elder Joseph Brackett, Jr.)
‘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,
Till by turning, turning we come round right.
Two points to note here:
- First, “Simple Gifts” makes no mention of God, Heaven or Hell, angels, Jesus, or any of the rest of the heavyweight icons of Christianity (or indeed, of any religion at all). This gives the song enormous appeal to secular performers and audiences — quite aside from the appeal of the message: simpler is better.
- Second, at root these are dance instructions: not a song of praise, worship, or contemplation. They don’t just tell the listener to dance (figuratively or literally), and how; they tell him or her not to be embarrassed to do so. (Given the atmosphere of those meetings with the audience from the World, it’s easy to see why this might be important.)
Of course, we have no actual recordings of Elder Joseph or anyone of his generation performing the song as it was first meant to be performed. But we do have this: a version from a 1976 collection of songs, performed by the (then) surviving members of the United Society of Shakers of Sabbathday Lake. This probably comes as close as possible to Elder Joseph’s intentions:
[Below, click Play button to begin. While audio is playing, volume control appears at left -- a row of little vertical bars. This clip is 1:10 long.]
Powerful though it may be in its simplicity, “Simple Gifts” might well have been forgotten in the twentieth century and beyond. Ensuring that it wouldn’t come to that fate were choreographer and dancer Martha Graham, composer Aaron Copland, and a generation of folk singers. I’ll cover that half of the song’s life in Part 2 of this post, in a few days.
Update, 2010-07-10: Part 2 is now available, here.
* One source, Jeannine Lauber’s Chosen Faith, Chosen Land, puts the number at 70,000. As recently as December 2009, she said there were three surviving Shakers.
** Here’s “Come Life, Shaker Life” performed by the United Society of Shakers:
[Below, click Play button to begin. While audio is playing, volume control appears at left -- a row of little vertical bars. This clip is 0:22 long.]
Come Life, Shaker Life
Come life, Shaker life,
Come life Eternal,
Shake, shake out of me,
All that is carnal.
I’ll play a nimble step,
I’ll be a David,
I’ll show Michael twice,
How he behaved.
And, as an aside, Bates’s song was resurrected and then extruded through a twentieth-century collander into the shape of Richie Havens’s 1972 “Run, Shaker Life”:
[Below, click Play button to begin. While audio is playing, volume control appears at left -- a row of little vertical bars. This clip is 5:47 long.]
Run, Shaker Life
Run, Shaker life
Shake life eternal
Shake it out of me
All that is carnal
I’ll be your Moses
I’ll be your David
I’ll show Michael twice
How he behaved
Oh yeah, oh yeah, oh yeah, oh yeah