Who were the Shakers?
The Shakers are a Christian sect which began in England and was then brought to the American Colonies. Their proper name is the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing. They practice pacifism and a communal lifestyle, and are also known for their “simplicity” in various aspects of life, such as their plain furniture.
What is “Simple Gifts?”
The song is attributed to Elder Joseph Brackett of the Shaker community in Alfred, Maine, and it was apparently written to accompany a dance ritual. (The Shaker Museum website has posted a different view of the origins of the song.) It remained largely unknown outside of Shaker circles until the American composer Aaron Copland used its melody in Appalachian Spring, in 1944.
Is it "A Gift" or "The Gift?"
Most written lyrics for the song say "'Tis the gift to be simple." However, at least one of the videos linked below has it as "'Tis a gift to be simple," and if you listen to the way many people sing it, it sounds more like "a" than "the." You can choose whichever way you prefer.
Other Uses of the Tune
English songwriter Sydney Carter adapted the tune and lyrics for his hymn "Lord of the Dance" (1963).
'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 to bend we will not be asham'd,
To turn, turn will be our delight,
Till by turning, turning we come round right.