Study Guide

Simple Gifts Introduction

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 weren't 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

ArtistBrackett, Jr., Joseph
Year1848
LabelN/A
Writer(s)Joseph Brackett, Jr.
Producer(s)N/A
Musician(s)N/A
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Album

Music Video

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Influenced by Brackett, Jr., Joseph

Despite their brief tenure as an active religious sect here in America, the Shakers had an impact on everything from music to furniture making to women’s rights. Aaron Copland, who used “Simple Gifts” in his Appalachian Spring piece, was a major figure in American music who influenced countless artists, musicians, and composers in numerous genres, from film and television to orchestral works to commercials.

Simple Gifts Resources

Images

Songwriter, Joseph Brackett, Jr.
Brackett was an elder in the Shaker community at Alfred, Maine.

Aaron Copland
The 20th-century American composer revived the Shaker song “Simple Gifts” by placing it within his score for Appalachian Spring, a 1944 ballet.

Shaker Furniture
Shaker furniture was designed with the belief that “beauty rests on utility.”

Shaker Dance
The well-known lithographer D.W. Kellogg prepared this lithograph.

More Shaker Dance
A visitor prepared this sketch in the 1840s.

Original Community, ca. 1870
The Watervliet Shaker village was the site of the original Shaker community (then labeled Niskeyuna).

Websites

The Shakers’ Historic Trail
This National Park Service site provides an overview of the Shakers and their history. More importantly, it allows visitors to follow the Shakers’ “historic trail” as they expanded. Individual community pages provide images of Shaker architecture and design.

Ken Burns Companion Site
PBS has posted a companion site for Ken Burns’s documentary on the Shakers. It offers a brief history, a useful timeline, links to other sources, and lesson plans for teachers.

Shaker Music
This handy site offers lots of information on Shaker music and its history. Songs, lyrics, images of original manuscripts, and sheet music are available. In addition, multiple links provide access to CDs and more sheet music.

Video & Audio

"Simple Gifts"
Cellist Yo-Yo Ma and singer Alison Krauss offer a fairly traditional rendition of the Shaker dance tune.

“Simple Gifts” within Appalachian Spring
Listen to the Shaker song as it appears with Aaron Copland’s classic suite.

Early Shaker Song
“In Yonder Valley,” written in 1787 by Father James Whittaker, is among the earliest Shaker songs written in America.