Right now I’m preparing for an upcoming musical offering at a church. Our opening song will be Simple Gifts, which is a traditional Shaker song that I’ve always loved. Today I took a few minutes away from my regular routine to do some digging into this beloved song’s history.
Simple Gifts was written by Shaker Elder Joseph Brackett in 1848. The proper name of the denomination is the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing (or simply “Believers”). They were referred to as “Shakers” because of their very active ways of worship. My college Zen teacher, Fr. Ben Wren, SJ, would have called it “three dimensional prayer.” They danced (or “labored”), trembled, clapped, fell, and…sang. Do just a wee bit of digging online on Shaker song history and you’ll find they were prolific songwriters – thousands of songs came from this relatively small denomination.
Simple Gifts is a classic. The song enjoyed revival after composer Aaron Copland used the melody in Appalachian Spring, a ballet, and then in a collection, Old American Songs. Since then, it’s been recorded by many artists, and has been performed at two presidential inaugurations.
It’s a dance song, with a catchy melody and lyrics that most people can identify with. Brackett gave us one verse that celebrates the beauty of a simple life:
‘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 ourself in the place just right
’twill be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gained,
to bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed
to turn, turn, will be our delight
’til by turning, turning, we come ’round right.
This single, simple verse is lovely, and impossible to improve upon. Loving the song, I’ve added my own second verse, inspired by the ideal of doing what we’re called to do, and sharing our gifts:
There are gifts of the spirit, there are gifts of the soul
There are gifts we give and blessings that we hold
and when we feel the touch of the Spirit’s wind
‘twill be a sign for the giving to begin.
When we answer each our call
We spread these gifts to one and all
We hear, do, and each shall give their own
Til by giving and doing we all have grown.*
Today I learned that (according to the Shaker Historical Society) Shakers believed that everyone has gifts and talents and each person was to use those gifts, and that creativity is a form of worship. Amen to that!
Keep life simple, accept your gifts and share them.
*© 2005 Brenda D. Lowry, all rights reserved.