Simple Gifts

Traditional Shaker song written by Elder Joseph Brackett
Simple Gifts
GenreShaker music, dance music
Textattr. Joseph Brackett
MeterIrregular with refrain
Shaker music
    • Issachar Bates: Ode to Contentment
    • Joseph Brackett: Simple Gifts
    • Wyeth and Hammond: The Humble Heart
Works inspired by Simple Gifts
    • John Williams: Air and Simple Gifts
    • Joel Cohen: Simple Gifts
    • Aaron Copland: Appalachian Spring, Old American Songs
    • Roger Lee Hall: Simple Gifts - Shaker Dance Song
    • Sydney Carter: Lord of the Dance
    • John Zdechlik: Chorale and Shaker Dance
    • Weezer: The Greatest Man That Ever Lived
Works inspired by Shakers
    • William Coulter: Shaker trilogy
    • Roger Lee Hall: Four New England Shaker Spirituals
    • Eric W. Sawyer: The Humble Heart
    • Kevin Siegfried: Angel of Light
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Simple Gifts Pendyrus Choir
Choral performance of Pendyrus Choir

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"Simple Gifts" is a Shaker song written and composed in 1848, generally attributed to Elder Joseph Brackett from Alfred Shaker Village. It became widely known when Aaron Copland used its melody for the score of Martha Graham's ballet, Appalachian Spring, premiered in 1944.

Background and composition

The tune and lyrics were written by Elder Joseph Brackett (1797–1882) of the Alfred, Maine Shaker community, although there is some disagreement as to which community Elder Joseph belonged to when the song was written. Elder Joseph resided with the Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village in New Gloucester, Maine community before he was called to serve in the Ministry in 1848.[1] For the next decade, he served the Community in Alfred, later returning to New Gloucester. However, the Alfred community's history makes no reference to "Simple Gifts", although there are several mentions of Elder Joseph.[2]

The first known reference to "Simple Gifts" is an advertisement for a concert in October 1848 by the Shaker Family from the Society of Shakers of New Gloucester, Maine.[3]

Resurgence and enduring popularity

External videos
video icon 'Tis a Gift to be Simple -- Shaker folk song, 2:04, Saint Andrews Episcopal Church, Seattle
video icon I Danced in the Morning (LORD OF THE DANCE), 3:55, First-Plymouth Church Lincoln Nebraska-Videos

The song was largely unknown outside Shaker communities until Aaron Copland used its melody for the score of Martha Graham's ballet, Appalachian Spring, first performed in 1944. (Shakers once worshipped on Holy Mount, in the Massachusetts portion of the Appalachians). Copland used "Simple Gifts" a second time in 1950 in his first set of Old American Songs for voice and piano, which was later orchestrated.


Copland used Brackett's original verse for the lyrics to his one-verse song:

'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 gained,
To bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed,
To turn, turn will be our delight,
Till by turning, turning we come 'round right.[4]

Several Shaker manuscripts indicate that this is a "dancing song" or a "quick dance".[5] "Turning" is a common theme in Christian theology, but the references to "turning" in the last two lines have also been identified as dance instructions. When the traditional dance is performed properly, each dancer ends up where they started, "come 'round right".


A manuscript of Mary Hazzard of the New Lebanon, New York Shaker community records this original version of the melody.

The song resembles, to a slight extent, several repetitions of the opening measures of William Byrd's renaissance composition, "The Barley Break", which Byrd intended to imitate country children playing a folk game.[citation needed] Similarly, Brackett is claimed to have come up with the song as an imitation of what folk music sounds like.[citation needed]

A somewhat similar musical theme arises also in a brass ensemble work, Canzon per sonare no. 2, by Giovanni Gabrieli (c.1555–1612). [citation needed]

"Lord of the Dance"

English songwriter Sydney Carter adapted the original American Shaker tune and lyrics for his hymn "Lord of the Dance" published and copyrighted in 1963.[6]

The Carter hymn is also titled "I Am the Lord of the Dance"[7] and "I Danced in the Morning".[8]

In 1996, the Carter hymn was adapted without authorization or acknowledgments of the origins of the tune or Carter's lyrics by Ronan Hardiman for Michael Flatley's dance musical, Lord of the Dance. The melody is used at various points throughout the show, including the piece entitled "Lord of the Dance".[9] The musical's title and version of the "Lord of the Dance" have led to some confusion that the song and lyrics are Celtic; however they are of American and English origin.[10][11]

Subsequent usage

  • Judy Collins included the song on her 1970 album, Whales & Nightingales.
  • R.E.M. used this song to open their song, "I Believe" during the last half of their Work Tour in 1987.
  • The song is incorporated into both the opening and closing tracks of the 1990 album Simple Gifts: Instrumental Arrangements of Shaker Melodies by William Coulter and Barry Phillips.
  • Yo-Yo Ma recorded a duet with singer/songwriter Alison Krauss, originally released on his 2001 album Classic Yo-Yo,[12] re-released on the 2005 album Essential Yo-Yo Ma, and later included in Apple Music's compilation, Yo-Yo Ma Essentials.
  • John P. Zdechlik used "Simple Gifts" in "Chorale and Shaker Dance", a 1972 composition for concert band. In 2004, Robert Steadman arranged the tune for orchestra featuring an off-stage trumpet and a thumping, dance-music influenced finale.
  • Frank Ticheli composed a variation of "Simple Gifts", presented in Simple Gifts: Four Shaker Songs.[13]
  • The 1967 album Happy Together by The Turtles includes the song "Too Young to Be One", which Eric Eisner adapted from "Simple Gifts."[14]
  • The central melody of "Simple Gifts" is used in the 2009 song The Sound Above My Hair by German electronic music group Scooter, which utilises bagpipes in the composition.
  • The 2008 song "The Greatest Man That Ever Lived (Variations on a Shaker Hymn)" by Weezer makes extensive use of the "Simple Gifts" melody throughout.

In popular culture

Additional verses

Two additional, later non-Shaker verses exist for the song, as follows:

'Tis the gift to be loved and that love to return,
'Tis the gift to be taught and a richer gift to learn,
And when we expect of others what we try to live each day,
Then we'll all live together and we'll all learn to say,
'Tis the gift to have friends and a true friend to be,
'Tis the gift to think of others not to only think of "me",
And when we hear what others really think and really feel,
Then we'll all live together with a love that is real.[21]
Tis the gift to be loving, tis the best gift of all
Like a quiet rain it blesses where it falls
And with it we will truly believe
Tis better to give than it is to receive

And an additional alternative:

The Earth is our mother and the fullness thereof,
Her streets, her slums, as well as stars above.
Salvation is here where we laugh, where we cry,
Where we seek and love, where we live and die.

When true liberty is found,
By fear and by hate we will no more be bound.
In love and in light we will find our new birth
And in peace and freedom, redeem the Earth.[22]

Another alternate verse:[citation needed]

'tis a gift to be simple, 'tis a gift to be fair
'tis a gift to wake and breathe the morning air
and each day we walk on the path that we choose
'tis a gift we pray we never shall lose

A Version Broadcast During Music and the Spoken Word:

'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 gained
To bow and to bend, we shan't be ashamed
To turn, turn, will be our delight
'Til by turning, turning, we come round right

'Tis a gift to be simple
'Tis a gift to be true
'Tis a gift to labor 'til the day is through
And when we find ourselves in the place so fine
'Twill be in the cool of the birch and the pine


'Tis a gift to be joyful
'Tis a gift to be free
'Tis a gift, 'tis a gift, 'tis a simple gift to be
And when you find yourself in the pure delight
The gift to be simple has led you alright



In the place just right
In the place just right
'Til by turning, turning, we come round right[23]


  1. ^ "'TIS A GIFT TO BE SIMPLE, BUT THINGS AREN'T AS SIMPLE AS THEY SEEM". 10 February 2022. Retrieved 6 August 2022.
  2. ^ "Shaker Historical Background". Retrieved 6 August 2022.
  3. ^ Fischer, David (2005). Liberty and freedom: a visual history of America's founding ideas. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 269–273. ISBN 978-0-19-516253-0.
  4. ^ Anderson, John M. (October 1950). "Force and Form: The Shaker Intuition of Simplicity". The Journal of Religion. 30 (4). The University of Chicago Press: 256–260. doi:10.1086/484020. JSTOR 1199188. S2CID 170850358.
  5. ^ Hall, Roger Lee (2014). 'Simple Gifts': Great American Folk Song. Stoughton, Massachusetts: Pine Tree Productions. pp. 20–21.
  6. ^ Hawn, C. Michael. "History of Hymns: 'Lord of the Dance'". Retrieved 6 August 2022.
  7. ^ "I Am the Lord of the Dance". Retrieved 6 August 2022.
  8. ^ "I Danced in the Morning". Retrieved 6 August 2022.
  9. ^ "Lord of the Dance". Lord of the Dance. 2016-03-01. Retrieved 2017-01-05.
  10. ^ "Lord of the Dance". Lord of the Dance. 2016-03-01. Retrieved 2017-01-05.
  11. ^ Hall, Roger Lee. "'Lord of the Dance' and 'Simple Gifts'". Retrieved 15 November 2012.
  12. ^ "Yo-Yo Ma - Classic Yo-Yo". Discogs. Retrieved 6 August 2022.
  13. ^ "Simple Gifts: Four Shaker Songs". Manhattan Beach Music. Retrieved 3 May 2015.
  14. ^ Kruth, John (April 19, 2017). "Can a 50-Year-Old Pop Album Stop Us From Destroying Each Other?". Observer. Retrieved September 8, 2022.
  15. ^ Mackey, Brian (January 22, 2009). "Brian Mackey: Hope for the future of arts in America". Ionia Sentinel-Standard. Retrieved March 5, 2021.
  16. ^ "Sigur Rós' Jónsi Shares New Song for Tom Hanks/Emma Watson Movie The Circle: Listen | Pitchfork". 20 April 2017. Retrieved 2017-04-20.
  17. ^ "Barnes & Noble". Retrieved 4 February 2017.
  18. ^ "The Pete Duel Memorial Site | Alias Smith & Jones". Retrieved 2017-01-05.
  19. ^ "'Tis a Gift." Shining Time Station. Season 1. (1990)
  20. ^ "'Relax." Bluey. Season 3. (1990)
  21. ^ Johnson, Arthur L. (2008). Race and Remembrance. Wayne State University Press. p. 210. ISBN 9780814333709.
  22. ^ Mockingbird (artist), Drenched (album), 2005, Simple Gifts
  23. ^ Mack Wilberg (arr.), Music and the Spoken Word, Tidying Up - Sunday, April 26, 2015

Further reading

  • Edward Deming Andrews (1940), The Gift to be Simple - Songs, Dances and Rituals of the American Shakers, J.J. Augustin. Republished by Dover Publications in 1962 and 1967. ISBN 978-0-486-20022-4
  • Roger Lee Hall (2014/ revised edition, 2019), Simple Gifts: Great American Folk Song, PineTree Press. Multimedia disc with additional audio and video files.
  • Roger L. Hall (2006/revised edition, 2010), The Story of 'Simple Gifts' - Joseph Brackett's Shaker Dance Song, PineTree Press.
  • Roger L. Hall (2006), A Guide to Shaker Music - With Music Supplement, 6th edition, PineTree Press.
  • Daniel W. Patterson (1979), The Shaker Spiritual, Princeton University Press. Republished by Dover Publications in 2000. ISBN 0-486-41375-6

External links

Wikisource has original text related to this article:
Simple Gifts
  • Joseph Brackett's 'Simple Gifts'
  • Simple Gifts Sheet Music with audio files
  • Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village Archived 2007-05-01 at the Wayback Machine
  • Simple Gifts sheet music arranged for the Native American Flute
  • Simple Gifts performed by the King's Singers in Hour of Power (a YouTube video)
  • Listen to 'Simple Gifts'on You Tube
  • Simple Gifts public domain audiobook at LibriVox
Authority control databases Edit this at Wikidata
  • MusicBrainz work