Notes on Songs in the Film, Shakers

Notes on Songs in the Film, Shakers

By Daniel W. Patterson

1. "The Gift to be Simple," which Aaron Copland made the best known of Shaker songs, originated in 1848 at Alfred, Maine. It was probably a "gift song" received by Elder Joseph Brackett. The late Mrs. Olive Austin told me that a sister who had care of her as a child at Hancock saw Elder Joseph sing the song on a visit there, turning with his coat tails flying. Turning to the right ("in heart and hand," as another song says) was of course a symbolic action.

2. "How Lovely are the Faithful Souls" is attributed to Olive Fairbanks of Mount Lebanon and dates from about 1830. This is an "extra" or "one-verse standing song" sung between dances and marches. The words "Heavenly Bride and Groom" refer to Christ and Mother Ann.

3. "I Never Did Believe" is an "extra song" from the same time and place. One manuscript attributes it to Eldress Betsey Bates, a daughter of Elder Issachar. It seems to survive in only two early manuscripts, but variants of it were known to both Eldress Marguerite and Sr. Mildred. Sr. Mildred sang hers in the Dorian mode, Eldress Marguerite in the Aeolian.

4. "Come Life, Shaker Life" is attributed in manuscripts to Elder Issachar Bates and dates from 1835. It is a song for the "quick dance," a lively exercise that often lifted the congregation into life and Pentecostal gifts. The text alludes to 2 Samuel 6:14, which tells of King David dancing before the Ark of the Lord despite the scorn of the damsel Michal. The Shakers defended their own dancing by citing such scriptural examples.

5."With a New Tongue" is dated 1845 in manuscripts and attributed to D. A. Buckingham, a leading musician at Watervliet, New York. None mentions the motions with which Sr. Mildred performs it. The intent of the motions was to help the mind focus intently upon the meaning of the words.

6. "Let Me Have Mother's Gospel" dates from the late 1860s. It was a favorite with Sr. Mildred and was another song for which she recalled "motions" not set down in manuscripts.

7. "Yielding and Simple" was received by Malissa Soule of Mount Lebanon about 1869. Manuscripts do not record the motions that Eldress Marguerite remembered for this song.

8. "Who Will Bow and Bend Like the Willow" was a gift song brought to Canterbury in 1847 by a spirit called Laughing John.

9. "Mother Has Come with Her Beautiful Song" appears in one manuscript with the note "Paulina Springer. Alfred. Feb. 1887." It shows the perpetuation in Maine of the spirit of the Era of Spirit Manifestations. Like many songs of the 1840s and '50s this one uses vocables and was a gift song brought, according to the story Sr. Paulina told Mildred, "by a little bird." Further, it refers to Mother Ann, who is mostly unmentioned in the published hymnals of the later era in Shakerism.

10."So Much Need Have I to Thank Thee" is printed under the title "Gratitude" in Shaker Hymnal by the Canterbury Shakers (1908), pp. 254-255. It was composed in that society and illustrates the influence of Sunday School songs and parlor ballads upon the melodies and performance style of later Shaker music.

11. "O Holy Father," according to manuscripts, originated in 1851. They attribute it to Alonzo Gilman of the community in Alfred, Maine. Sr. Mildred said that in her youth the song was used very frequently "at the close of prayer services while we were on our knees." The song is in 5/4 time.

12. "O Brighter than the Morning Star" appears in three of the late printed hymnals, including the 1908 Canterbury hymnal (p. 196), which carries the attribution "Canterbury." But manuscripts show that it actually originated in 1868 at Union Village, Ohio. The melody was supplied by Susannie M. Brady of that community and is traditional in character. The words were by Ezra T. Leggeth, who came to the Shakers at the age of forty, after having worked as "first clerk or book keeper" in some business establishment and "experienced Washington aristocracy." In the Shaker village, he said, "for months together it was continually with him like angel whisperings, and sometimes it was so impressive, he would have to take his pencil from his pocket and write a few verses by way of relief."