Simple Gifts

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For the American folk band, see Simple Gifts (band).
"Simple Gifts"
Folk dance by Joseph Brackett
Released 1848 (1848)
Genre Folk
Language English

"Simple Gifts" is a Shaker song written and composed in 1848 by Elder Joseph Brackett.

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.[1]

Background and composition[edit]

The tune was written by Joseph Brackett (1797–1882) in 1848.[2] Brackett, a lifelong resident of Maine, first joined the Shakers at Gorham, Maine, 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
Songs of America - Simple Gifts - Shaker Hymn, 1:40, Cibertracker Imperium
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 (Shakers once worshipped on Holy Mount, in the Appalachians), 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. "Simple Gifts" has been adapted or arranged many times since by folksingers and composers.[4]


"Simple Gifts" was written by Elder Joseph while he was at the Shaker community in Alfred, Maine. 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 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.[5]

Several Shaker manuscripts indicate that this is a "Dancing Song" or a "Quick Dance." "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.[1] When the traditional dance is performed properly, each dancer ends up where he or she began, "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 quite closely resembles 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]

"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.[6]

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

Other versions[edit]

The Shakers' "Simple Gifts" melody shows up as a part of Aaron Copland's music for the ballet Appalachian Spring.

The rock band Weezer has shown repeated interest in the song, both on their second 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.

The Turtles recorded a song called "Too Young To Be One" which owes much of its melody to the classic Shaker work.

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 British punk band Toy Dolls adapted the song in their song "My Girlfriend's Dad's a Vicar", from studio albums "A Far Out Disc" (1985) and the compilation album "Ten Years Of Toys" (1989).

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.

In 1998, Windham Hill Records released a collective album titled "Thanksgiving" which featured an arrangement of "Simple Gifts" performed by Thea and Tracy Silverman.

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.[8]

Yo-Yo Ma and Alison Krauss performed a duet of "Simple Gifts" on his 2001 album "Classic Yo-Yo".

On their Grammy-winning CD Simple Gifts (2008), The King's Singers perform an a cappella version titled Gift to be Simple.

In 2009, singer Jewel released a version on her album "Lullaby".

Simple Gifts was performed in 2009 by the Santa Clara Vanguard Drum and Bugle Corps as part of their program "Ballet For Martha.

The Norfolk, England, Kipper Family, Sid and Henry Kipper (Dick Nudds and Chris Sugden) - wrote and recorded a version of Lord of the Dance, calling it Bored of the Dance. It tells of the men attending a village hall social evening being forced by the women to join in the various dances when they would rather be drinking with their friends, or getting the women to bed. It has the memorable line: "It's hard to dance when you're lying on your back".

John Williams' Air and Simple Gifts was premiered at U.S. President Obama's inauguration on January 21, 2009. It was performed by Yo-Yo Ma (cello), Itzhak Perlman (violin), Anthony McGill (Clarinet) and Gabriela Montero (piano). It was a classical quartet based on the original Simple Gifts.

The West Virginia University marching band plays an arrangement of "Simple Gifts" as part of the band's pre game show for football games. The band's version of the song also has been featured in the university's television advertisements.

An a cappella arrangement of "Simple Gifts" is included on Minneapolis choir Cantus' 2011 album That Eternal Day.

Roger Lee Hall has arranged "Simple Gifts" for chorus and it is performed by The Canterbury Singers on the album Celestial Praises.

You can also hear the theme intertwined into "Over the Rainbow / Simple Gifts" by the Piano Guys.

"Simple Gifts" is the opening song in a combined dance, music and theatrical collaboration called "Angel Reapers," by Martha Clarke and Alfred Uhry. The work is a celebration of the Shakers, their history, their practices and their accomplishments. It first appeared in its present form in Boston and New York in November 2011. It has since been revived by the Signature Theatre Company in New York in February 2016.

In popular culture[edit]

In 1982, "Simple Gifts" was used as the background music track for the "Smurf: Rescue In Gargamels Castle" video game for the Colecovision and Atari 2600 systems.

For many years, a portion of this tune was used as the opening theme for the CBS News television documentary series, CBS Reports.

In the movie A Time for Dancing a version of Simple Gifts is played as the opening song. It is sung by Anastasia Breeze, the "Simple Gift" choir and Táta Vega.

The TV series Little House on the Prairie had the Ingalls family singing this song.

The then-10-year-old Jodie Foster sang this song in the 1973 episode "Alethea" of Kung Fu.

It was used in the 1963 Boulting Brothers' film Heavens Above[9]

Hannibal Heyes (Pete Duel) sang the song on Alias Smith and Jones in the 1971 (second season) episode "The Posse That Wouldn’t Quit", mere months before the actor took his own life.[10]

The tune was incorporated into Air and Simple Gifts arranged by John Williams for the 2009 inauguration of United States President Barack Obama.

"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.[11]

"Simple Gifts" is the corps song for Revolution Drum & Bugle Corps

"Simple Gifts" was sung by the cast of Shining Time Station, along with guest actress Rachel Miner in its 1990 Christmas Special 'Tis a Gift.

"Simple Gifts" was used as the theme song for the syndicated newsmagazine American Journal, originally starting as a majestic arrangement in early seasons and promos, and then upgrading to a rock format in later seasons and promos.

From 1993 through 1998, an instrumental arrangement of the song was used as the theme song for the syndicated news magazine TV program American Journal.

The Aaron Copland version was used during the movie The Ultimate Gift in 2006

In 2009, electronic artist Scooter, sampled the tune in their single, "The Sound Above My Hair".

On the November 23, 2009 edition of WWE Raw, "Simple Gifts" was used as the entrance theme for a team of "Pilgrims" composed of Jillian Hall, Layla and Michelle McCool for a "Mayflower Melee" Match.

On January 12, 2011 "Simple Gifts," in an arrangement by Grant Cochran, was sung at the Memorial for the victims of the 2011 Tucson shooting at the McKale Center at the University of Arizona in Tucson.

In Aug Sept 2012 "Simple Gifts" was used as the melody in the background, of TV spot ads for both Whirlpool, Simple Designs, Washer Dryers, and also Arborday com .

The melody was also adapted and used in the 2008 song The Greatest Man That Ever Lived off Weezer's Red Album and Michael Flatley's river dance performances.

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.[12]
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.[13]

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 aright
In the place just right
In the place just right
'Til by turning, turning, we come round right[14]


  1. ^ a b Hall, Roger Lee. "Joseph Brackett's Simple Gifts". Retrieved 2012-11-15. 
  2. ^ Fischer, David (2005). Liberty and freedom: a visual history of America's founding ideas. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 269–273. 
  3. ^ Hall, Roger L. (2006). The Story of SIMPLE GIFTS. PineTree Press, pages 25-26. 
  4. ^ Hall, Roger L. (2006). The Story of SIMPLE GIFTS. PineTree Press, pages 40-50. 
  5. ^ 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. 
  6. ^ Hall, Roger Lee. ""Lord of the Dance" and "Simple Gifts"". Retrieved 15 November 2012. 
  7. ^ "Lord of the Dance". Lord of the Dance. 2016-03-01. Retrieved 2017-01-05. 
  8. ^ "Simple Gifts: Four Shaker Songs". Manhattan Beach Music. Retrieved 3 May 2015. 
  9. ^ "Barnes & Noble". Retrieved 4 February 2017. 
  10. ^ "The Pete Duel Memorial Site | Alias Smith & Jones". Retrieved 2017-01-05. 
  11. ^ "Marching Band Facts". West Virginia University. 
  12. ^ Johnson, Arthur L. (2008). Race and Remembrance. Wayne State University Press. 
  13. ^ Mockingbird (artist), Drenched (album), 2005, Simple Gifts
  14. ^ 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), 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]