Simple Gifts

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Simple Gifts
GenreShaker music, dance music
Textattr. Joseph Brackett
MeterIrregular with refrain

"Simple Gifts" is a Shaker song written and composed in 1848, generally attributed to Elder Joseph Brackett from Alfred Shaker Village.

Background and composition[edit]

The tune was written in 1848.[1] There are two conflicting narratives of Shaker origin as to the composer of the song. One account attributes the song to a "Negro spirit" heard at Canterbury, New Hampshire, which would make the song a "gift song" received by a Shaker from the spirit world. Alternatively, and more widely accepted, the song's composer is said to be Joseph Brackett (1797–1882) of Alfred, Maine.[2] A lifelong resident of the state, he first joined the Shakers at Gorham when his father's farm helped to form the nucleus of a new Shaker settlement.[3]

Resurgence and enduring popularity[edit]

External video
Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village barns, Historic American Buildings Survey.jpeg
video icon I Danced in the Morning (LORD OF THE DANCE), 3:55, First-Plymouth Church Lincoln Nebraska-Videos

The song was largely unknown outside Shaker communities until Aaron Copland used its melody for the score of Martha Graham's ballet Appalachian Spring, first performed in 1944. (Shakers once worshipped on Holy Mount, in the Massachusetts portion of the Appalachians). 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.


Copland used Brackett's original verse for 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 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 gained,
To bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed,
To turn, turn will be our delight,
Till by turning, turning we come ’round right.[4]

Several Shaker manuscripts indicate that this is a “dancing song” or a “quick dance”.[5] "Turning" is a common theme in Christian theology, but the references to "turning" in the last two lines have also been identified as dance instructions. When the traditional dance is performed properly, each dancer ends up where they started, "come 'round right".


A manuscript of Mary Hazzard of the New Lebanon, New York, Shaker community records this original version of the melody: SimpleGifts.png

The song resembles to a slight extent several repetitions of the opening measures of William Byrd's renaissance composition, "The Barley Break", which Byrd intended to imitate country children playing a folk game.[citation needed] Similarly, Brackett is claimed to have come up with the song as an imitation of what folk music sounds like.[citation needed]

A somewhat similar musical theme arises also in a brass ensemble work Canzon per sonare no. 2 by Giovanni Gabrieli (c.1555-1612).

Many people have mistakenly believed that the tune of "Simple Gifts" was a traditional Celtic one but both the music and original lyrics are actually the compositions of Brackett. "Simple Gifts" has been adapted or arranged many times since by folksingers and composers.[6]

"Lord of the Dance"[edit]

A well known version is by English songwriter Sydney Carter, who adapted the Shaker tune for his song "Lord of the Dance", first published in 1963.[7]

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."[8] Other adaptations of the lyrics by Carter have occurred in the widespread belief that they are traditional, and in the public domain.[citation needed]

Subsequent usage[edit]

  • The Shakers' "Simple Gifts" melody appears in Aaron Copland's music for the ballet Appalachian Spring. For many years, an excerpt was used as the opening theme for the CBS News television documentary series, CBS Reports. Additionally, several arrangements by composer Rick Krizman were composed for the tabloid news series American Journal.
  • Judy Collins included the song on her 1970 album Whales & Nightingales.
  • R.E.M. used this song to open their song "I Believe" during the last half of their Work Tour in 1987.
  • The song is incorporated into both the opening and closing tracks of the 1990 album "Simple Gifts: Instrumental Arrangements of Shaker Melodies" by William Coulter and Barry Phillips.
  • 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. Frank Ticheli also wrote a version of "Simple Gifts", presented in Simple Gifts: Four Shaker Songs.[9]
  • "Simple Gifts" was performed in 2009 by the Santa Clara Vanguard Drum and Bugle Corps as part of their program "Ballet for Martha" (Copland's working title for "Appalachian Spring"[10]).
  • Icelandic singer Jónsi covered the song for the 2017 film The Circle.[11]
  • Trans World Airlines used the song for its commercials and safety videos in the late 1990s to 2000 before the airline merged with American Airlines.[12]

In popular culture[edit]

  • It was used in the 1963 Boulting Brothers' film Heavens Above!.[13]
  • Hannibal Heyes (Pete Duel) sings the song in Alias Smith and Jones in the 1971 (second season) episode "The Posse That Wouldn’t Quit"; mere months later the actor would take his own life.[14]
  • "Simple Gifts" in such pieces as "Chorale and Shaker Dance" and the Appalachian Spring have been popular music repertoire for drum corps and marching bands. Among them are 1987 Garfield Cadets, 1992 Blue Knights and 2009 Santa Clara Vanguard. The Appalachian State University marching band also performs a rendition of "Simple Gifts" as part of a pre-game tradition, prior to football games. A snippet of Simple Gifts is also played after every Mountaineer first down. The West Virginia University Mountaineer Marching Band, known as The Pride of West Virginia, has performed an arrangement of the song during Mountaineer football games since 1973.[15]

Additional verses[edit]

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.[16]
Tis the gift to be loving, tis the best gift of all
Like a quiet rain it blesses where it falls
And with it we will truly believe
Tis better to give than it is to receive

And an additional alternative:

The Earth is our mother and the fullness thereof,
Her streets, her slums, as well as stars above.
Salvation is here where we laugh, where we cry,
Where we seek and love, where we live and die.
When true liberty is found,
By fear and by hate we will no more be bound.
In love and in light we will find our new birth
And in peace and freedom, redeem the Earth.[17]

Another alternate verse:

'tis a gift to be simple, 'tis a gift to be fair
'tis a gift to wake and breathe the morning air
and each day we walk on the path that we choose
'tis a gift we pray we never shall lose

A Version Broadcast During Music and the Spoken Word

'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 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
'Tis a gift to be simple
'Tis a gift to be true
'Tis a gift to labor 'til the day is through
And when we find ourselves in the place so fine
'Twill be in the cool of the birch and the pine
'Tis a gift to be joyful
'Tis a gift to be free
'Tis a gift, 'tis a gift, 'tis a simple gift to be
And when you find yourself in the pure delight
The gift to be simple has led you alright
In the place just right
In the place just right
'Til by turning, turning, we come round right[18]


  1. ^ Fischer, David (2005). Liberty and freedom: a visual history of America's founding ideas. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 269–273.
  2. ^ Ticheli, Frank (2012). Simple Gifts: Four Shaker Songs for concert band by Frank Ticheli. Brooklyn, New York: Manhattan Beach Music. p. 7.
  3. ^ Hall, Roger L. (2006). The Story of SIMPLE GIFTS. PineTree Press, pages 25-26.
  4. ^ John M. Anderson (October 1950). "Force and Form: The Shaker Intuition of Simplicity". The Journal of Religion. The University of Chicago Press. 30 (4): 256–260. doi:10.1086/484020. JSTOR 1199188.
  5. ^ Hall, Roger Lee (2014). "Simple Gifts": Great American Folk Song. Stoughton, Mass.: Pine Tree Productions. pp. 20–21.
  6. ^ Hall, Roger L. (2006). The Story of SIMPLE GIFTS. PineTree Press, pages 40-50.
  7. ^ Hall, Roger Lee. ""Lord of the Dance" and "Simple Gifts"". Retrieved 15 November 2012.
  8. ^ "Lord of the Dance". Lord of the Dance. 2016-03-01. Retrieved 2017-01-05.
  9. ^ "Simple Gifts: Four Shaker Songs". Manhattan Beach Music. Retrieved 3 May 2015.
  10. ^ Matthew Naughtin, Ballet Music, 2014, p. 147. Reference copied from Appalachian Spring
  11. ^ "Sigur Rós' Jónsi Shares New Song for Tom Hanks/Emma Watson Movie The Circle: Listen | Pitchfork". Retrieved 2017-04-20.
  13. ^ "Barnes & Noble". Retrieved 4 February 2017.
  14. ^ "The Pete Duel Memorial Site | Alias Smith & Jones". Retrieved 2017-01-05.
  15. ^ "Marching Band Facts". West Virginia University. Archived from the original on June 13, 2010. Retrieved July 31, 2010.
  16. ^ Johnson, Arthur L. (2008). Race and Remembrance. Wayne State University Press.
  17. ^ Mockingbird (artist), Drenched (album), 2005, Simple Gifts
  18. ^ Mack Wilberg (arr.), Music and the Spoken Word, Tidying Up - Sunday, April 26, 2015

Further reading[edit]

  • Edward Deming Andrews (1940), The Gift to be Simple - Songs, Dances and Rituals of the American Shakers, J.J. Augustin. Republished by Dover Publications in 1962 and 1967. ISBN 978-0-486-20022-4
  • Roger Lee Hall (2014/ revised edition, 2019), Simple Gifts: Great American Folk Song, PineTree Press. Multimedia disc with additional audio and video files.
  • Roger L. Hall (2006/revised edition, 2010), The Story of 'Simple Gifts' - Joseph Brackett's Shaker Dance Song, PineTree Press.
  • Roger L. Hall (2006), A Guide to Shaker Music - With Music Supplement, 6th edition, PineTree Press.
  • Daniel W. Patterson (1979), The Shaker Spiritual, Princeton University Press. Republished by Dover Publications in 2000. ISBN 0-486-41375-6

External links[edit]