‘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 and to bend we shan’t be asham’d,
To turn, turn will be our delight,
Till by turning, turning we come round right.
When Elder Joseph Brackett of the Shaker community at Sabbathday Lake, Maine penned “Simple Gifts” in 1848, it is a fairly good bet he was not thinking about symphonic variations, pop-artist cover versions or theatrical dance extravaganzas.
Nobody else was, either — “Simple Gifts” remained quite unknown to general audiences for nearly a century after its creation. But then Aaron Copland fell in love with the clean sweep of its melody and worked it into his beautiful score for Appalachian Spring, and nobody has been able to resist it since.
If you’re interested in more about the history of the song, take a look at this page, which corrects many errors often perpetuated about “Simple Gifts.” The most obvious one is calling it a “Shaker hymn.” It is really a Shaker dance song, which a close look at the last two lines should have told us all along.
Although I have now been on three journeys to the Watervliet, NY area, I have yet to pay a visit to the Shaker historic site there, where Shaker founder Mother Ann Lee is buried. My ancestry hunts have always taken me to a very different side of Watervliet. But I hope to correct this oversight someday. Meanwhile, I’ll take a listen to “Simple Gifts,” which seems like an ideal meditation for Thanksgiving Day.
“Simple Gifts” is a perfect example of Shaker art: supple, clean-edged and just a little bit mysterious in its simplicity. No wonder singers and instrumentalists explore it again and again.
Alison Krauss and Yo-Yo Ma have done “Simple Gifts” as a richly beautiful duet that can be heard here.
And here is Judy Collins, singing it in February 1963:
Finally, how can you have a Shaker dancing song without dancers? This version from “Blast,” the brass-and-percussion theatrical event, brings it all together. A far cry from Sabbathday Lake, but still … enjoy! And Happy Thanksgiving.