For other uses see Simple Gifts (disambiguation).
It has endured many inaccurate descriptions. Though often classified as an anonymous Shaker hymn or as a work song, it is better classified as a dance song.
Elder Joseph Brackett was born in Cumberland, Maine, on May 6, 1797. He first joined the Shakers at Gorham, Maine, when his father's farm helped to form the nucleus of a new Shaker settlement. In 1819, Joseph moved with the other Shakers to Poland Hill, Maine, where he learned that he could sing very well. He later served as first minister of Maine Shaker societies, as well as Church Elder at New Gloucester, Maine, now known as Sabbathday Lake, the last remaining Shaker community. Elder Joseph Brackett died on July 4, 1882.
"Simple Gifts" was written by Elder Joseph while he was at the Shaker community in Alfred, Maine in 1848. These are the lyrics to his one-verse song:
'Tis the gift to be simple, 'tis the gift to be free,
'Tis the gift to come down where you 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 out right.
Several Shaker manuscripts indicate that this is a "Dancing Song" or a "Quick Dance." The references to "turning" in the last two lines have been identified as dance instructions.
A manuscript of Mary Hazzard of the New Lebanon, N.Y. Shaker community records this original version of the melody:
The song was largely unknown outside of Shaker communities until it became world famous thanks to its use in Aaron Copland's score for Martha Graham's ballet, Appalachian Spring, first performed in 1944. Copland used "Simple Gifts" a second time in 1950 in his first set of Old American Songs for voice and piano, which was later orchestrated. Many people thought that the tune of "Simple Gifts" was a traditional Celtic one but both the music and original lyrics are actually the compositions of Brackett. Adaptations and extensions of Brackett's original lyrics have occurred and actually are in the public domain.
"Simple Gifts" has been adapted or arranged many times by folksingers and composers. Probably the best known example is by English songwriter Sydney Carter, who adapted the Shaker tune for his song "Lord of the Dance", first published in 1963. The Carter lyrics were adapted, in ignorance of the actual origins, without authorization or acknowledgments by Ronan Hardiman for Michael Flatley's dance musical "Lord of the Dance", which opened in 1996. The melody is used at various points throughout the show, including the piece titled "Lord of the Dance." Other adaptations of the lyrics by Carter have occurred in the wide-spread belief that they are traditional, and in the public domain.
The rock band Weezer has shown repeated interest in the hymn, both on their sophomore album pinkerton as the introduction to the song "Across The Sea", and in a song off their sixth studio album (aka "The Red Album") titled "The Greatest Man That Ever Lived (Variations on a Shaker Hymn, on which it can be clearly heard in the piano intro and the repeated chorus of the song.
John P. Zdechlik used "Simple Gifts" in "Chorale and Shaker Dance," a 1972 composition for concert band. In 2004, Robert Steadman arranged the tune for orchestra featuring an off-stage trumpet and a thumping, dance-music influenced finale. In 1992, Anne McGinty used "Simple Gifts" in an arrangement titled Chorale Prelude. The piece begins with an expanded introduction of the chorale tune. It changes the meter and phrasing of the piece and there is an eventual key change from B-flat to E-flat. Frank Ticheli also wrote a version of Simple Gifts, presented in Simple Gifts: Four Shaker Songs.
The West Virginia University Marching band, "The Pride of West Virginia," also performs a rendition of "Simple Gifts" as part of a pre-game tradition, prior to football games.
The tune was incorporated into a composition called Air and Simple Gifts arranged by John Williams and performed by Itzhak Perlman (violin), Yo-Yo Ma (cello), Gabriela Montero (piano), and Anthony McGill (clarinet) on January 20, 2009 at the 2009 inauguration of United States President Barack Obama.
Two additional, later non-Shaker verses exist for the song, as follows:
'Tis the gift to be loved and that love to return,
'Tis the gift to be taught and a richer gift to learn,,
And when we expect of others what we try to live each day,
Then we'll all live together and we'll all learn to say,
'Tis the gift to have friends and a true friend to be,
'Tis the gift to think of others not to only think of "me",
And when we hear what others really think and really feel,
Then we'll all live together with a love that is real.