Complicated life of 'Simple Gifts' Anniversary: As the popular song, written by a member of the Shaker sect, marks its 150th year, historians try to set its confusing record straight.

Sun Journal

December 02, 1998|By David Crumm | David Crumm,DETROIT FREE PRESS

After 150 years, "Simple Gifts" isn't so simple anymore.

The song composed in 1848 by Shaker Elder Joseph Brackett as an easy-to-learn tune for Shaker worship -- extolling the virtues of a simple life -- has become one of America's most popular all-purpose melodies.

In its sesquicentennial year, it's hard to escape the song, which is performed with or without its original lyrics by folk singers, school choruses, church choirs and symphony orchestras. Versions have shown up in weddings, funerals, two presidential inaugurations, television commercials -- and even the hit Irish dance revue "Lord of the Dance."

"It's surprising how many places the song is used. Sometimes, people don't even realize what they're hearing," says Diana Van Kolken, author of a book about the Shakers and owner of Shaker Messenger, a shop that sells Shaker-style furniture in Holland, Mich.

"People like this song today because they want to find simplicity," Van Kolken says. "We're surrounded all day by electronics and technology. The pace of our world is so fast. People just like to think about the words to this song: ' 'Tis the gift to be simple, 'tis the gift to be free.' "

Randy Folger, who sings the song each weekday for visitors at historic Shaker Village in Pleasant Hill, Ky., says, "The man who wrote this claimed it came to him by divine inspiration, and I truly believe that might have been the case. This may be the perfect piece of music. I've sung it close to 15,000 times over the years, and I never get tired of it."

However, Folger and other historians are tired of confusion over the song's origin and meaning. They are using the sesquicentennial to dispel misinformation and tell the true story behind "Simple Gifts."

For example, the theme song for "Lord of the Dance" uses the "Simple Gifts" melody. "And, after seeing the show, I've had people argue that this is really an old English or Irish folk tune," Folger says. "But I've done a lot of research into this, and the Shaker tune definitely came first."

"Lord of the Dance" is a set of lyrics written for the Shaker melody in 1963 by composer Sydney Carter. Carter's hymn, which is sung in many churches, uses dance as a metaphor for Jesus' ministry on earth. But in recent years the hymn was borrowed by Irish dancer Michael Flatley, who kicked Jesus out of the song, then added a mysterious forest spirit and enough special effects for a rock concert.

That's just the most recent source of confusion. Two years ago, commercials for the Oldsmobile Aurora annoyed some Shaker purists. At the time, Olds was banking heavily on the new $32,000 luxury car and needed a catchy theme song.

Matthew Jones, a spokesman for Olds' Leo Burnett ad agency in Chicago, says, "We wanted music that spoke to the grandeur, elegance and luxury of the vehicle. And we wanted something that inspired patriotism, because this was an American car going head-to-head with foreign luxury cars."

The ads showed a driver floating through the galaxy while astronauts constructed his dream car to the strains of "Appalachian Spring," composer Aaron Copland's symphonic version of "Simple Gifts."

Folger's reaction to equating his beloved song with luxury: "Shakers are spinning in their graves."

Shaker aficionados don't even like to talk about the rock version of "Simple Gifts," which was used as the theme for the TV tabloid show "American Journal." They say they are relieved that the show was canceled.

Roger Hall, a Maine musicologist who wrote about the history of "Simple Gifts," dismisses the "American Journal" version of the song with one word: "raucous."

No sesquicentennial events are planned at Shaker historical sites such as Pleasant Hill. But Folger, Hall and other Shaker historians are doing what they can to rescue the song's origins from obscurity.

Folger tells the history of "Simple Gifts" to hundreds of visitors each week.

Hall is contacting music publishers and asking for corrections, because many of them print scores of the song without mentioning its composer.

When he wrote the song, Brackett was a 51-year-old Shaker leader in what is today Sabbathday Lake, Maine, which remains the home of the last seven members of the dwindling church. Not much else is known about Brackett, not even the date of composition.

"During the middle of the 19th century, the Shakers composed an incredible number of songs -- over 12,000," Hall says.

Shakers were as vigorous in their worship as they were in their work. They were Christians who believed that Jesus would return to judge the world, so they had better be ready. Men and women were separated in Shaker villages and agreed to lead celibate lives. They lived simply, with few personal possessions.

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