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Origins: Simple Gifts / 'Tis a Gift to be Simple

24 May 00 - 02:16 PM (#233224)
Subject: Lyrics request: A Gift to be Simple
From: GUEST,

This is a project I am doing at work. I am not familiar with this piece of music (A Gift to be Simple), but gather that it is fairly well known. I am seeking the lyrics, name of composer, and any historical information available. I would appreciate any help anyone can give me!

24 May 00 - 02:21 PM (#233227)
Subject: RE: Lyrics request: A Gift to be Simple
From: Dave (the ancient mariner)

I hope you can add this URL. to the locator and find it Guest.. The song is listed in the DT trads lyrics search engine at the top of the page.. Just put in the words and hit Go it will take you there. Or use this Url to find the site... Sorry I cannot do the blue clicky thing yet... Yours, Aye. Dave

24 May 00 - 02:38 PM (#233231)
Subject: RE: Lyrics request: A Gift to be Simple
From: MMario

yes, it is a fairly well known song. A search for it on the internet on a site such as google should yield you somewhere in the neighborhood of 12 hundred or so sites...

try seaching on "simple gifts" and Shaker

24 May 00 - 02:50 PM (#233232)
Subject: RE: Lyrics request: A Gift to be Simple
From: McGrath of Harlow

'Tis a Gift to be Simple si Shaker song, also known as Simple Giftshere is something about the Shakers, and here is even more

The tune is probably even better known therough Sydney Carter's song, The Lord of the Dance, which borrowed the tune of Simple Gifts, - or through Michael Flattley's appropriation of this for his "look-at-me aren't I brilliant" musical extravaganza of the same name. (He thought The Lord of the Dance was a folk song, and ended up paying a substantial sum to Sydney Carter who wrote the song.)

24 May 00 - 03:21 PM (#233245)
Subject: RE: Lyrics request: A Gift to be Simple
From: Peg

also, check out Aaron Copeland's instrumental version; I do not know the name of it but one of his symphonies or other compositions is based around this theme...

24 May 00 - 03:48 PM (#233261)
Subject: RE: Lyrics request: A Gift to be Simple
From: Jacob B

Appalachian Spring is the Copland piece that is based on Simple Gifts.

24 May 00 - 04:14 PM (#233274)
Subject: RE: Lyrics request: A Gift to be Simple
From: McGrath of Harlow

Oh yes, "name of composer" - I think it was a fella called Joseph Brackett. (That is according to this website They'd know more about it though.

24 May 00 - 05:54 PM (#233342)
Subject: RE: Lyrics request: A Gift to be Simple
From: Jon Freeman

McGrath, perhaps I'm being stupid but who wrote the melody?

Also, I am puzzled by what you said about Sydney Carter. I have always viewed his words as a hymn and I am surprised that a Christian (which I thought he was) should be wanting royalties...


(A Christian who prefers to sing "Gift to be simple" than Lord of the Dance)

24 May 00 - 06:39 PM (#233364)
Subject: RE: Lyrics request: A Gift to be Simple
From: Stewie

Those interested in Shaker music may like to know that Rounder has recently released a double CD, with 72 page booklet: 'Let Zion Move: Music of the Shakers' Rounder 0471/72. I haven't heard it, but the review I read said that it is 'well worth it if you have even the least interest in these people, their beliefs and way of life'.


24 May 00 - 08:06 PM (#233419)
Subject: RE: Lyrics request: A Gift to be Simple
From: McGrath of Harlow

Well the Shakers would probably have said God wrote the melody.

As for Sydney Carter and Lord of the Dance. He prefers the term "carol" to hymn. "A carol was a dance before it was a song, and a song before it got into a hymn book. That applies almost exactly to the words and music which are prionted in this book" he writes in his preface to Green Print for Song which includes Lord of the Dance

And the hassle with Michael Flattley arose out of the way he just lifted the song, and applied the title to himself in a way that had more than a touch of - well you could call it hubris, or you could call it blasphemy. But it certainly deserved cutting down to size, and the money wasn't anywhere near the heart of it.

And Jon, you don't have to pick and choose between Simple Gifts and Sydey Carters's song. The new song doesn't replace the old one, it complements it. And Sydney would be the last person to suggest you should prefer his song. "I adapted this melody. I could have written another for the words of Lord of the Dance" he wrote "but this was so appropriate that it seemed a waste of time to do so. Also I wanted to salute the Shakers."

25 May 00 - 12:08 AM (#233531)
Subject: RE: Lyrics request: A Gift to be Simple
From: Bob Bolton

G'day Jon,

I think we should remember that Sydney Carter is a professional songwriter. Even Christians have to admit that the workman is worthy of his hire.

Bob Bolton

25 May 00 - 08:15 PM (#233971)
Subject: RE: Lyrics request: A Gift to be Simple
From: McGrath of Harlow

I don't think you'll find him after you for royalties for singing his songs in clubs or sessions, or church. (And there aren't that many people who can write songs that are just as much at home in all these settings.....)

And here's a page about Sydney Carter

25 May 00 - 08:18 PM (#233973)
Subject: RE: Lyrics request: A Gift to be Simple
From: Jon Freeman

Fair comment, Bob


25 May 00 - 09:02 PM (#233988)
Subject: RE: Lyrics request: A Gift to be Simple
From: MMario

Many people seem not to know that "Lord of the Dance" isn't a traditional folksong. I heard it in a madrigal concert once, and it was introduced as a sixteenth century tune the shakers had "borrowed"

25 May 00 - 09:27 PM (#233997)
Subject: Simple Gifts - Shaker Hymn
From: Joe Offer

I've been listening to a great CD called Simple Gifts: Shaker Music in America. It's a terrific collection of 34 traditional Shaker hymns. Here's an excerpt from the album notes:
Shaker song, despite growing interest in the Shaker movement, remains virtually unknown to the general public. Reductionistically, one tune (admittedly, a beautiful one) has come to symbolize all of Shakerdom. Even that tune, Simple Gifts, is most often heard in reworkings, ranging in context and quality from the brilliant (Aaron Copland's Appalachian Spring) to the downright tacky (television commercials for expensive automobiles). And yet, Shaker music is so very much more! The large, mainly unpublished body of Shaker song contains untold treasures; it is important as music, as spiritual testimony, and as American cultural history. The repertoire fairly cries out to be heard on its own terms, in a simple, non-exploitative context.
We can never know exactly how the nineteenth-century Shakers performed their music. Some aspects of their style have surely been lost to later generations. But the musicians of this recording, both Shaker and non-Shaker, have aimed to shape their performances along traditional lines, according to the precepts and the spirit of Shaker practice. Early Shaker song, like medieval Gregorian chant, was to be done in unison, by voices only, without instrumental accompaniment. Shaker melodies of the early period are noticeably "archaic", they can and do sound "older" than their dates of composition would appear to indicate. The influence of English folksong is immediately evident, and there are even reminiscences within the Shaker repertoire of medieval and Renaissance song style. Many songs were composed by, or "given to", specific individuals in the community. Some, like the dance tunes, were sung by small groups of singers during the worship service, as the main body of believers joined in the dance. Others were meant for performance by the whole community. We have attempted to vary the dispositions and groupings of voices across this recorded program without departing from the basic tenets of Shaker performance practice.
The Shakers carefully preserved thousands of their songs in various kinds of special musical notation ("normal" staff notation, along with part-singing and instrumental playing, did not come into general use until after 1870). The library of the Shaker community at Sabbath-day Lake, Maine, contains extensive music holdings, including some important manuscripts by Elder Otis Sawyer, a key figure in the history of Maine Shakerdom and a fine musician. Many of the songs we perform were transcribed during the spring of 1994 from original Shaker manuscript and printed sources; a large number of these from Elder Otis' lovingly preserved copy books. This scribe/editor, who worked on song transcriptions in Maine for a number of happy days as Elder Otis' framed photographic portrait looked down at him from the facing wall, felt privileged to be helping these tunes along on their way to a deserved rebirth. It seemed that the beautiful inspirations of Elder Otis and the early Shakers were preparing to speak to the world once again, and there was a rightness to that.
But the archives do not tell the whole story. Shakerism is also a living religion, with a continuous musical tradition. Although the early Shaker "letteral" notation was abandoned over a century ago, many older Shaker songs have been preserved in communal memory at Sabbathday Lake, and are still being sung by the Shakers of today. My deepest thanks go to the members of the Sabbathday Lake Shaker Community, for warm hospitality, good advice, unstinting project support, and musical inspiration.
Joel Cohen
Newburyport, Ma. Spring 1995
I found a review of the album (see link above) that says that "Simple Gifts," the most famous of all Shaker songs, was penned by Elder Joseph Brackett, 1797-1882.
-Joe Offer-

25 May 00 - 09:37 PM (#234002)
Subject: Simple Gifts - Shaker Hymn
From: Joe Offer

This is good stuff. I might as well give you the rest of the album introduction.
-Joe Offer-
In the year 1774 there was a "gift" for those who felt able to come to America to preach the Gospel. In May of that year nine members, including Mother Ann, embarked on the ship Mariah for a two-month voyage to America. They landed in New York City on August 6. (Today we continue to commemorate this event with a special worship service). Several members went up the Hudson River to Niskayuna, just outside Albany. They purchased a tract of land and immediately set to building a home in the wilderness.
The Shakers, being newly arrived from England, and pacifists, kept a low profile. There was a religious revival in progress in the surrounding district and soon the Shakers were discovered. Mother Ann and the Elders decided to make a missionary tour. Due to the charisma of Mother Ann and the preaching of Father James and Father William, many converts were made. Mother Ann preached a way of life that was a living theology. There seemed to be even more persecutors than converts. The brutal and frequent attacks took their toll. Father William Lee (Mother Ann's natural brother) expired on July 21, 1784. In less than two months, Mother Ann herself died. For the next three years, Father James would head the Church. He wore himself out and died in 1787, leaving the church in the hands of the American converts.
Father Joseph Meacham and Mother Lucy Wright were chosen to lead the Church. It was under these two most capable leaders that the Societies were called into "Gospel Order." Community life as they envisioned it requires a person to live their life based on the life and teachings of Christ: to be celibate, to confess their sins, practice a community of goods, and be pacifists. From the beginning there has been equality for all, regardless of race or gender.
The administration of Father Joseph and Mother Lucy marked the greatest period of growth for the Shakers. At the time of Mother Lucy's death in 1821 there were 18 communities stretching from Maine to Kentucky. The following four decades were ones of stability and, for most of the Communities, prosperity. Peaking at five thousand members, the Shakers were never a large religion, but we have affected the "World" greatly by our technology, ingenuity, and reliable products.
Following the Civil War, there came a time of decline for many of the Societies, and a gradual retrenchment began to occur. At the close of the century Communities were forced to close because of debts and lack of membership. Thankfully, the Maine communities at Alfred and Sabbathday Lake were relatively isolated. They began to enjoy their greatest times of stabilized membership and financial prosperity. Most importantly, when the other Societies were abandoning the tenets of the faith, the Maine Shakers continued to practice the traditional way of life.
Central to the life has been the act of worship. Of all the various "gifts" received by the Brothers and Sisters, songs and singing have, remained a constant. Sister Mildred Baker was often quoted as saying, "there is a Shakers' song for every occasion." It would be hard to argue with Sister Mildred in that there are over ten thousand songs extant. Songs are sung during the various worship services cach day, and continue to be handed down to the newer members by the older ones. This has been our way for over two hundred years.
Today, only the place we call Chosen Land is still a functioning Community. We might be few in number, but we look with hope to the future knowing that God will provide; She always has.
The Sabbathday Lake Shakers
Poland Spring, Maine.

25 May 00 - 09:46 PM (#234004)
Subject: RE: Lyrics request: A Gift to be Simple
From: McGrath of Harlow

Yes indeed - I want to get hold of that one. (The track I clicked on, oddly enough, made me think of he Cistercian Salve Regina.)

Many songs were composed by, or "given to", specific individuals in the community. I really like that -"given to" is how I feel any time I write a song I feel is a good one.

25 May 00 - 10:42 PM (#234019)
Subject: RE: Lyrics request: A Gift to be Simple
From: Bob Bolton

G'day Joe Offer,

You ask who 'wrote' Simple Gifts. I notice that McGrath of Harlow mentions Joseph Brackett in a posting above. As I remember from when I chased this up a year ago for friends, to do with performance at a wedding, the Shaker lady who sang the song credits Joseph Brackett and records indicate the date to be around 1848.

I will check, when I have time. I am coordinating about 30 folk musicians for a Colonial Ball tomorrow night and this does distract!


Bob Boltom

26 May 00 - 12:15 AM (#234067)
Subject: RE: Lyrics request: A Gift to be Simple
From: Joe Offer

My mistake, Bob - I corrected it above. When I looked a little closer, I found it in the sources I mentioned, and at the terrific Website McGrath referred to Click. Seems pretty certain the song was written by Shaker Elder Joseph Brackett in 1848.
-Joe Offer-

26 May 00 - 12:25 AM (#234070)
Subject: RE: Lyrics request: A Gift to be Simple
From: Dale Rose

And I just found that the Lord of the Dance dates from 1963. Got that from McGrath's link to Sydney Carter.

26 May 00 - 05:43 PM (#234518)
Subject: RE: Lyrics request: A Gift to be Simple
From: Penny S.

Sydney Carter is listed in the index of the copyright group who we had to buy a licence from for the use of Christian songs in school when we didn't use a hymnbook, but an overhead projector.


27 May 00 - 12:18 AM (#234664)
Subject: RE: Lyrics request: A Gift to be Simple
From: Art Thieme

The first folks to ever record "Simple Gifts" within the American folk revival were my good friends George and Gerry Armstrong. It was included in their great LP for Folkways Records called simply SIMPLE GIFTS. (early 60s) They also recorded the song for Folk Legacy Records. The Armstrongs are the people we all must thank for bringing this obscure Shaker hymn to the fore. It's where Sydney Carter lifted his melody for what I feel is a lesser song---by quite a wide margin.

Art Thieme

28 May 00 - 08:49 AM (#235045)
Subject: RE: Lyrics request: A Gift to be Simple
From: McGrath of Harlow

I see it as using a tune that's been used before, not lifting it. Sharing it. One result of Sydney Carter using the tune is that far more p[eople have become aware of teh song Simple Gifts than would otherwise have known it. (And he's always done his best to make people aware of where the tune came from, for that very reason.

Two different songs, each saying something different. Each has some qualities the other doesn't. It's a bit like a fiddle and a mandolin sharing the same tuning. "The mandolin has just stolen the tuning of the fiddle, and is nowhere near as fine sort of an instrument."

01 Feb 09 - 01:44 AM (#2554199)
Subject: Tune add: original Simple Gifts
From: GUEST,Jerry Friedman

Just a drive-by. Hi to anyone who remembers me from ten years ago or whatever.

The tune for "Simple Gifts" in the database seems to be the modified tune for "Lord of the Dance". At least, it's called LORDANCE. The following tune is billed at the Wikipedia article as the original Shaker tune. Whoever added it to WP probably got it from Roger L. Hall, as seen here. If you squint, you may be able to convince yourself that the broadside offered for sale at that site shows the same tune.

If this really is the original tune, maybe it should be used for all the versions of "Simple Gifts" in the database, with the LORDANCE tune only for "Lord of the Dance" (which I guess had to be removed).

What do people think?

T:Simple Gifts
C: Joseph Brackett, Jr. (1797-1882)
O:Alfred, Maine, U.S.A.
g, g, | c c/2d/2 e/2c/2 e/2f/2 | g g/2g/2 e d/2c/2 | d d d d | d/2e/2 d/2B/2 G G | c/2B/2 c/2d/2 e d/2d/2 | e f g>g | d d/2e/2 d c/2c/2 | d c/2B/2 d2 | g2 e>d | e/2f/2 e/2d/2 c>d | e e/2f/2 g e | d d/2e/2 d>G | c2 c>d | e e/2f/2 g g/2g/2 | d d e e/2d/2 | c c c2 ||

To play or display ABC tunes, try

01 Feb 09 - 03:23 AM (#2554217)
Subject: RE: Tune add: original Simple Gifts
From: Joe Offer

Hi, Jerry -
It's good to see you back. If you'd like to stick around, e-mail me for cookie reset information []. I hope you don't mind that I moved us over to an existing thread on the song.

I'd agree that what you posted may well be the original tune for "Simple Gifts," but it's not the tune that has been part of the Folkie Canon for most of my life. The tune for "Simple Gifts" in the Digital Tradition is this one:Now, I will agree that it is unfortunate we titled it lordance.mid - but I do think it's the tune people sing for "Simple gifts." For that matter, I think it's the tune that was played as "Simple Gifts" at the Obama Inauguration.

Maybe Aaron Copland changed the original tune when he used it in Appalachian Spring (1944) - perhaps we should credit Copland for the MIDI we have, but it certainly predated Sydney Carter's "Lord of the Dance."


01 Feb 09 - 05:41 AM (#2554266)
Subject: RE: Origins: Simple Gifts / 'Tis a Gift to be Simple
From: Jack Campin

Bartok used a Transylvanian relative of the tune in his First Rhapsody for Violin (and piano or orchestra, there are different versions). That was 20 years before Copland used it, and it obviously isn't directly derived from the Shaker tune. Both are two-part tunes but only the first parts match.

I presume there are commentaries on the Bartok that identify exactly where he got it (he didn't say at the time) and place it in a Hungarian tune family.

Here it is in a YouTube perfomance - 4'38" in:
Erno Kallai plays Bartok Rhapsody no. 1

My guess is that both derive from a common Central European original.

01 Feb 09 - 07:04 AM (#2554308)
Subject: RE: Origins: Simple Gifts / 'Tis a Gift to be Simple
From: Jim McLean

Jack, Haydn's Symphony No. 94, the Surprise symphony can be heard here
The opening (2nd movement?)always makes me think of A Gift to be Simple. He was living between 1732 - 1809 so could this be an early form of the phrase?

01 Feb 09 - 03:06 PM (#2554667)
Subject: RE: Origins: Simple Gifts / 'Tis a Gift to be Simple
From: dick greenhaus

Elie Seigmeister thought that the "Simple Gifts" tune was derived from a seventeenth century hymn called "Confess Jehovah". There are certaily points of similarity.

01 Feb 09 - 03:14 PM (#2554672)
Subject: RE: Origins: Simple Gifts / 'Tis a Gift to be Simple
From: Jim McLean

Dick, do you know where I could hear/read this tune?

01 Feb 09 - 03:17 PM (#2554678)
Subject: RE: Origins: Simple Gifts / 'Tis a Gift to be Simple
From: Jim McLean

Ignore the request, Dick, I googled it and she is quite right, at least there is a great similarity.

01 Feb 09 - 03:20 PM (#2554682)
Subject: RE: Origins: Simple Gifts / 'Tis a Gift to be Simple
From: Art Thieme

I insist, another time, of putting forth George and Gerry Armstong of Wilmette, Illinois (where our governors make our license plates ;-) as the source of the song "Simple Gifts" within the American folk song revival.


01 Feb 09 - 03:22 PM (#2554685)
Subject: RE: Origins: Simple Gifts / 'Tis a Gift to be Simple
From: greg stephens

The Helston Furry Dance is another member of this tune family. They do not, of course, have to be interconnected. An idea so simple(no pun intended) will obviously occur to people anywhere, they dont have to have learnt it from someone else. I dont think Bartok got his ideas from Simple Gifts, for example(though he might have done). Its really just an ornamented run up and down a cchord, the atrting phrase of the Bartok and Simple Gifts. GBDB.After that, the tunes diverge completely.

01 Feb 09 - 03:49 PM (#2554710)
Subject: RE: Origins: Simple Gifts / 'Tis a Gift to be Simple
From: GUEST,Jerry Friedman

Good to see you too, Joe. I'm thinking about trying to fix the tune for "He's Gone Away", but even if I do that I I'll be gone away before it would be worthwhile to reset the cookie.

I did this because of a discussion at alt.usage.english in which someone said that SG was a lot like the "Surprise" theme, just as Jim McLean said here. This version of the tune is closer to Haydn's than the familiar one, very close to Haydn's for the first three lines, in my opinion—though a musician at a.u.e. disagreed.

As for whether it should go in the database, I see your point about people being familiar with the Copland version, but the database does have some unfamiliar original versions, such as the 15th-century poem that "The Riddle Song" comes from. So it's there to add for the Lords of the Trad, if they think two versions might make people glad. (Assuming it really is Brackett's original.)

Thanks for mentioning "Confess Jehovah", Dick. I can see and hear that the first eight notes are identical. And thank you too, Jack—I can hear the same phrase in the Bartok. But after those points, the tunes seem to go different ways.

And whether one tune came from a similar one, or they came from a common origin, or the resemblance is accidental? I can't even guess.

01 Feb 09 - 03:58 PM (#2554722)
Subject: RE: Origins: Simple Gifts / 'Tis a Gift to be Simple
From: Art Thieme

I've resurrected the thread about Gerry Armstrong from when she passed away in 1999. It's just to further inform new people here about the music of George and Gerry---and their influence--and their musicality.


01 Feb 09 - 05:02 PM (#2554768)
Subject: RE: Origins: Simple Gifts / 'Tis a Gift to be Simple
From: johnross

Copland used "Simple Gifts" in his suite of Old American Songs (first recorded by William Warfield in 1953) before the Armstrongs' 1961 Folkways LP brought it to the canon of the folk music revival. And Copland had used it even earlier as part of Appalachian Spring. So the song was probably well-known to classical music listeners before the Armstrongs' LP came out.

As regular listeners to WFMT, it's more than likely that the Armstrongs knew the Warfield record, and it could have been one of their sources.

Sidney Carter didn't get hold of it until 1963, when he adopted the melody for "Lord of the Dance."

02 Feb 09 - 08:39 AM (#2555180)
Subject: RE: Origins: Simple Gifts / 'Tis a Gift to be Simple
From: CamiSu

I have known Simple Gifts longer than I can remember, and when we got married, David and I used it as my processional. The only instrument we had was a recorder and everyone sang. It was really neat.