A Foot Stomping Toe Tapping Culture

The Music of Shaker Culture

Music of Shaker Culture
Shaker Culture Wikimedia Commons

If modern Shakers don't want to be remembered "as a piece of furniture," perhaps they wouldn't mind being remembered as passionate musicians.

Strict moral codes, celibacy and hard work appear, at first glance, to be incongruous with creativity, especially in the form of music. But consider the words to the well-known Shaker song, "Simple Gifts":

"'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."

Although written well before the Civil War, the words, and the strong, vibrant melody that immediately comes to mind, still resonate today.

Far from stifling music, Shaker villages resounded with passionate and often beautiful song. Many Shaker songs were written, in fact, as dance tunes. Shaker worship included a strong component of dancing and foot-tapping in songs like "Followers of the Lamb" (1848) and "The Voice of God" (1841) that made it a lively affair. Other songs, such as "Mother Ann's Song" (1780) and "Who will Bow and Bend Like a Willow?" (1843), reveal the gentle and deeply spiritual nature of their worship and worldview.

With few exceptions, Shakers had no distinctive music of their own until the early 1800s, when divine "gifts" were received by the Believers. A person received the song while in a trance. Another Shaker wrote it down, and others refined it. Like Shaker living, Shaker songs were a communal affair. Tunes written in one village would often be given lyrics by a member of a different community.

During this song-writing boom, the Shakers created their own form of musical notation. Using letters instead of circles on a staff, this kind of notation enabled those without formal music training to record songs for posterity. This same technique made Shaker communities less dependent on the outside world for their music, and as a result their music grew more and more original. Thousands of songs were created before the Civil War when outside influences muffled the unique Shaker voice and their songs began to take on the flavor of other Protestant sects.

Music is the surest way to see what drives a culture, and Shaker songs depict a people whose beliefs were the heartbeat in their bodies.

The Sound of Passion

Hear for yourself the distinctive Shaker sound by clicking on the songs below, recorded by the glee clubs of Smith and Amherst colleges and found on the album Music of the Shakers (Folkways; 1976).

Folkways Records was founded in 1948 by Moses Asch, who dedicated his life to recording folk music. Folkways was acquired by the Smithsonian Institution in 1987.

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