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Simple Gifts

Simple Gifts


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Simple Gifts Introduction

In a Nutshell

“Simple Gifts” is a Shaker song from 1848. Just as its title suggests, the song celebrates one of the core principles of Shaker belief: simplicity. In reality, though, the Shakers were not a very simple religious sect. They believed that the end of the world was rapidly approaching; their views on sex and women were radical; and they lived within communist communities that were way outside the American mainstream.

By the end of the 19th century, the Shaker religion had all but disappeared and their music with them, but in 1944, “Simple Gifts” was rediscovered by American composer Aaron Copland and placed at the center of his ballet score Appalachian Spring. The ballet celebrated the spirit and experience of America’s pioneers. Many agreed that the little Shaker song sounded lovely, but they questioned why Copland would place the music of a virtually extinct radical religious sect at the center of his celebration of American life.

So why did Copland do it? What did he find in the song that was so important? And why would he make it part of his celebration of America’s pioneer spirit? Read on; the answer might be pretty simple.

About the Song

ArtistN/A Musician(s)N/A
Writer(s)Joseph Brackett, Jr.
Learn to play: http://www.makingmusicfun.net/htm/f_printit_free_printable_sheet_music/simple-gifts-lead-sheet.htm
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Shmoop Connections

Explore the ways this song connects with the world and with other topics on Shmoop
Joseph Brackett, Jr., a Shaker, wrote “Simple Gifts” in 1848. While the song reveals a great deal about the religious beliefs and liturgical practices of Shakers, what it does not show is that the song and the Shaker movement were both a major part of the revivals that swept across America during the early 19th century. This “Second Great Awakening” boosted the memberships of congregations like the Baptists and Methodists and inspired the creation of several brand new religions. In addition to the Shakers, the Mormons and Seventh Day Adventists trace their roots to this period.

The Shakers contributed more to American history than just a distinctive set of beliefs and form of worship; they also played a significant role in the history of women in America. Introduced to America by a woman and known for elevating women to positions of leadership, the Shakers provided women with opportunities that they would not experience in the rest of American society for more than a century. Unfortunately, their progressive stance on women’s rights would not save their farms or small furniture businesses when the kicked into high gear in the United States. As more Shakers were forced to move off of their farms and into big cities, their beliefs and way of life began to die out, taking much of their culture and music with them.

“Simple Gifts” might have completely faded into obscurity if 20th century composer Aaron Copland had not placed the Shaker melody at the heart of his famous Appalachian Spring. Copland, like several other 20th century artists, was anxious to give American art a distinctively American character, so he drew from America’s folk and pioneer traditions in writing his music. While he is perhaps best known for his Rodeo and Fanfare for the Common Man, Copland drew from as many uniquely American sources as he could, even composing the elegant in a patriotic attempt to help the war effort in 1942.

On the Charts

While the original “Simple Gifts” predates the modern music chart system by almost a century, and while classical composers like Aaron Copland rarely see their names on the Billboard Hot 100, that doesn’t mean that the song is not popular or has not received any recognition for its beauty. In fact, Appalachian Spring won Copland the 1945 Pulitzer Prize for Music, just one of many awards and accolades the composer earned throughout his orchestral career.

In addition to his more classical works, Copland was also a successful composer of film scores. He was nominated for several Academy Awards, and in 1950 he won the Best Music Oscar for The Heiress.

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