"Simple Gifts" is an 1848 Shaker song 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.
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.
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 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 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 round right.
Several Shaker manuscripts indicate that this is a "Dancing Song" or a "Quick Dance." That is apparent with such lines of the song as "turn, turn will be our delight" and "turning, turning we come round right". These are dance instructions. (It should also be noted that the tune traditionally paired with these lyrics (see below) is also used in many hymnals for the song "Lord of the Dance".)
A manuscript of Mary Hazzard of the New Lebanon, N.Y. Shaker community records this original version of the melody: Image:SimpleGifts.png
This Shaker dance song has become 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.
"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.
Around 1973, a pagan song adaptation of Sydney Carter's "Lord of the Dance" began to be sung.
John P. Zdechlik used "Simple Gifts" in "Chorale and Shaker Dance," a 1972 composition for concert band.
In 1998, to celebrate the 150th anniversary of "Simple Gifts," an arrangement for voice and piano was completed by Roger Lee Hall.
In 2004, Robert Steadman arranged the tune for orchestra featuring an off-stage trumpet and a thumping, dance-music influenced finale.
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 o-thers 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.
It has been noted that these later verses are of a more facile sentiment and do not fit the rhythm of the tune so well.
A more recent version was released in the album State of Grace, released 10 October 2000 by BMG Entertainment. Composed by Paul Schwartz and performed by Lisbeth Scott, the original lyrics were used in this arrangement. It is listed as the 9th track on the album.
"Simple Gifts" in popular culture
A folk-nouveau version of the song was used as the theme music for the PBS series Craft in America, airing first in May 2007.
The Copland version of the melody was used as the theme music for the CBS News series of documentary specials, CBS Reports, the earliest of which (1959) were hosted by Edward R. Murrow (who was born to a Quaker family).
The song was also used in a film about a mentally disturbed child. The movie concerns Tarra, a troubled child, who develops a friendship with a grown man no more than a child himself. The film was made when the actual girl, on whose story the movie is based, turned seven. "Simple Gifts" went to Cannes Film Festival the spring of 1998.
The melody of the song was also heard from the background in the Election night of 1996 when President Bill Clinton and his family exited the Arkansas Governor's mansion and were greeted by crowd when it was announced that he had won re-election.
An ABC western from the early 1970's, "Alias Smith and Jones" featured the song in several episodes. It was sung in the last episode Only Three to a Bed, by guest star Jo Ann Pflug.
In episode 10 entitled "Alethea" in the first season of the 1970's Kung Fu television series starring David Carradine guest child star Jodie Foster who plays the character Alethea Patricia Ingram sings the song, accompanied by her lute.
The song was featured in the Christmas episode of the PBS television show Shining Time Station, titled "'Tis a Gift".
The song was featured in the Broadway show Blast!
The song is used by West Virginia University; the clock tower at Woodburn Hall, on the downtown campus, plays the melody daily at 12:20 p.m. and it has been played by the Pride of West Virginia during pregame at all home football games since at least 1977. This arrangement of the song is a highly anticipated moment during the show where the band tightens into three concentric circles at the middle of the field before expanding them during the melody.
The song is used by Appalachian State University; the Marching Mountaineers play it right before 'Hi Hi Yikas' (the Appalachian fight song) in the football pregame show, effectively whipping Kidd Brewer Stadium crowds into a frenzy.
The song is also featured in the movie A Time for Dancing.
A more classical version of Simple Gifts was recorded by Yo Yo Ma on cello with Alison Krauss, the vocalist. It's currently listed as twenty-first among Itunes' Top 40 Classical Songs and is on Yo Yo Ma's album - Classic Yo Yo.
Abbreviations of the song are used by a Renaissance band Blackmore's Night in a song Lord of Dance/Simple Gifts. The album was released on November 7, 2006.