Monday, April 17, 2023

Folk Song for May 2024: Simple Gifts

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.

Video Links

This video by Charles Szabo (with piano accompaniment and on-screen lyrics) is a good one for learning the song.

This recording with folk instruments (autoharp and Seagull Merlin strumstick) is also very nice for singing along.

American folk singer Judy Collins included Simple Gifts on her 1970 album Whales and Nightingales.

John Williams created an instrumental version titled "Air and Simple Gifts," which was performed (by Anthony McGill, Itzhak Perlman, Yo-Yo Ma, and Gabriela Montero) at the inauguration of U.S. President Barack Obama in 2009.

Additional Verses: A Challenge

Many people have added verses to this song, according to their own philosophies and convictions. Perhaps this is a writing challenge that AO students would also enjoy.

Our helpful intro post is sure to liven up your folk song adventures.

For more information on our folk songs, and for Amazon affiliate 
links to purchase individual songs, see our AO Folk Songs page.
These affiliate links help support AmblesideOnline.

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