Music was a critical part of the Shaker experience from their earliest days. Even Mother Ann Lee, the Englishwoman who led the first group of Shaker immigrants to America in 1774, wrote songs. And while the music that accompanied the Shakers’ dance of worship drew the most attention from curious outsiders, not all Shaker music served this purpose. Shakers wrote hymns and work songs. They also wrote songs that chronicled their history. For example, “Mother,” published in 1813, celebrated the journey of Ann Lee and her followers to America:
“This little band of union,
In apostolic life,
Remain’d awhile in England,
Among the sons of strife;
Till the Columbian Eagle,
Borne by an eastern breeze,
Convey’d this little Kingdom
Across the rolling Seas.”
Somewhat curiously, the Shakers developed their own system of musical notation. Known as the “letteral system,” this method substituted letters from the alphabet for traditional musical notes. Apparently, while they were anxious to spread their faith, they were not interested in combining their music with that produced in the non-Shaker world. They took pains to separate their hymns, work songs, and dance tunes from the religious music produced by other denominations.
Early Shaker songbooks suggest that “Simple Gifts” was intended to accompany the dance that was part of Shaker worship. Most commonly it would have been sung a cappella with celebrants clapping the tune’s straightforward 4/4 time. However, when Aaron Copland revived the song for Appalachian Spring in 1944, he provided it with more full orchestration and substituted a more complex meter.
Despite this innovation, Copland did honor the song’s original purpose in one sense: he placed the revised song within a ballet score. Yet even here he broke with the Shakers. Within the ballet’s celebration of frontier life, “Simple Gifts” provides the music for a series of dances recording the life of a married couple. The Shakers, committed to celibacy, would no doubt have choreographed these dances differently.