Joseph Brackett, Jr.: “Simple Gifts”

See image credit below.

See image credit below.

This week as we turn our thoughts to Thanksgiving, I am reminded of the beautiful Shaker song “Simple Gifts.” I have long loved the spare melody and the powerful lyrics.

Many think of “Simple Gifts” as an anonymous Shaker hymn – which is only partly correct. It is a Shaker song, but it was written as a dance song (note the repetition of the word “turn,” which would have been a way to call a figure in a dance). And the man who wrote both the melody and the words was Joseph Brackett, Jr., a Shaker elder, head of the society in Maine. Brackett lived at Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village. You can visit the community’s website to learn more about its long history and its continuance to this day, including its recent hosting of the Maine Festival of American Music.

Until 1944, “Simple Gifts” was known mostly inside Shaker communities. But in 1944, American composer Aaron Copland used Brackett’s melody in his composition Appalachian Spring, which served as the score to a ballet choreographed by Martha Graham.

As you get ready to celebrate Thanksgiving, reflect on the words to this quintessential American 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.

Want to add a recording of “Simple Gifts” to your collection? You might purchase Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring, performed by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra with Leonard Slatkin conducting. Or you might want to get a copy of “Simple Gifts” performed by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center at Shaker Village or Joel Cohen’s historic collection, Simple Gifts: Shaker Chants and Spirituals. And finally, Classic Yo-Yo includes Yo-Yo Ma’s recording of “Simple Gifts” with Alison Krauss.

For another approach to Thanksgiving stories, read last year’s StoryWeb post on StoryCorps. This year, StoryCorps is once again hosting the Great Thanksgiving Listen. I hope some StoryWeb readers will participate – and I hope that all of you find yourselves in “the valley of love and delight” this Thanksgiving.

Watch and Listen:Watch the Martha Graham Dance Company perform a ballet to Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring. The first three minutes of this clip is based on the melody to “Simple Gifts.” Then listen to the beautiful version from cellist Yo-Yo Ma and vocalist Alison Krauss.


Image Credit: Portrait of Joseph Brackett, Jr., published in 1907,