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Simple Gifts: 34 Shaker Chants and Spirituals
Come life, Shaker life [0.44], In yonder valley [1.42], Virgins clothed in a clean white garment [1.22], Mother [4.30], Father James’ Song [1.37], Followers of the Lamb [1.30], Mother Ann’s Song [2.20 ], I have a soul to be saved or lost [1.50], Heavenly comfort [2.28], A companion to stiff [1.00], Pinch’d up, nip’d up [0.36], I will fight and never slack [1.34 ], Celestial choir [2.14], Holy Angel [3.23], The lark [0.59], Nightingale’s song [1.23], Holy Order Song [1.26 ], Learned of Angel [1.36], Laughing John’s Interrogatory [0.53], I’ll beat my drum as I march along [1.14 ], Mother’s Warning [0.46], The Solemn Bell [1.33], Mother’s Cup of Tribulation [3.24], Sad Days [2.15], Encouragement [2.36], Verdant valley [1.12], In yonder valley (reprise) [1.30], Solemn Song [1.29], Turn to the right [0.46], O will you sing another song [1.26], The Spiritual sailor [3.24], Mother has come [0.42], Holy Mother’s protecting chain [3.11], Simple gifts [1.04]
The Boston Camerata, The Schola Cantorum of Boston, Shaker Community of Sabbathday Lake, Maine/Joel Cohen.Recorded in 1995 in the USA.  Originally released on the Erato label. Notes including full texts in English, Français, and Deutsch.
WARNER CLASSICS APEX  2564 60367-2 [59.57]


In my generation the whole fifth year of elementary school was taken up with a detailed study of the Puritan colony on Massachusetts Bay founded in 1620 by the passengers of the Mayflower.  This may have something to do with why a small minority of ultra-conservative Protestant Christians wield such tremendous political power in the USA today.  It also served to take attention away from other religious groups who risked everything to emigrate to North America in the seventeenth century to escape religious persecution in Europe.  Ironically, in the 14th century my grandfather’s family had emigrated from conservative Bavaria via Belgium to liberal England to escape religious persecution.  And even earlier my grandmother’s family had fled West to Württemberg for the same reason.

My great-grandmother was born in the Moravian colony in Emmaus, Pennsylvania.  But by the time she had born her husband three live children, they were living in north central Pennsylvania and the colony had mostly dispersed westward across Pennsylvania and into Ohio. 

The Shakers were founded in France and in England but, after finding themselves very unwelcome on the European continent, established several colonies in the US.  They believed that their founder was Jesus Christ incarnate in a woman’s body, and that all sexual activity, for whatever purpose, including reproduction, was sinful.  Naturally, each Shaker colony had to continually recruit new members to exist, and most of them did not last long.  The Sabbathday Lake colony in Maine is the only one still functioning today.

Some of the early American church music approaches the quality of the Purcell English anthems.  Intense religious fervour can be profoundly moving whether we find it in Tibetan chants, African drumming or American spirituals.  The music of a virtually extinct spiritual group at least has documentary value, and I’m afraid this disk falls mostly in the last category.  The music is occasionally diverting but of generally indifferent quality, performed by enthusiastic talented amateurs, mostly monodic and repetitive in nature with no real counterpoint.  Some is expressive of a reflective or gregarious mood which avoids strong emotions.  Some of the tunes are personal spiritual songs and remotely suggest an approach to cantorial ecstasy.  Musical interest builds sharply toward the end of the recital, culminating in track 18, “Learned of an Angel” two sopranos singing parallel harmony.  Track 25 features a soprano melody accompanied by a held note in the tenors and some stamping on the beat.

The final number on the album is the title song, Simple Gifts which was written by Shaker Elder Joseph Brackett, Jr., in 1848.  So it is not a folk-song although, in the mistaken idea that it was, a Wicca high priest formerly of my acquaintance used to sing this with what he said were the “original words” as a hymn to the Horned God, concluding with the refrain, “...for I am the Lord of the Dance, said He.”  Aaron  Copland also used the tune in his ballet Appalachian Spring. Someone searching for new music for Church choirs and socials may find some useful gems here.

Paul Shoemaker

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