The Shaker Song Tradition

The Shaker Song Tradition

By Daniel W. Patterson

"The Shakers" includes twelve examples of Shaker singing. Five are performances that Davenport filmed in 1971. The remainder, used as voice-overs, are from tapes I had recorded earlier. All but two of the performances come from the Sabbathday Lake community, either group performances or solos by Sr. Mildred Barker, the leading tradition bearer in the community—a role recognized by the National Endowment for the Arts in 1983 with its prestigious National Heritage Fellowship. The two remaining performances in the film come from Canterbury. One is by Eldress Marguerite Frost, the other by Eldress Bertha Lindsay, accompanied by Sr. Lillian Phelps on the piano. All but this voice-piano duet come from a tradition of Pentecostal religious folksong that stretches back to the earliest days of Shakerism.

In 1780 a Baptist preacher from the Berkshires crossed into New York to investigate a "strange work" in the wilderness above Albany, where converts were flocking to an "Elect Lady" from England. He returned home proclaiming the fulfillment of Revelation 14, for his eyes had seen the Lamb and Its virgin company. "I would as quick speak against the Holy Ghost, as speak against that people," he declared to neighbors gathered in a large barn; "they sing the song of the redeemed, they sing the song of the hundred and forty and four thousand, which were redeemed from the earth" and they "seemed like an innumerable company of Angels, and Church of the first born, singing praises to the Heavenly Host."

Like Rathbun, most nineteenth-century travelers and journalists were struck by the nature and role of song in Shaker worship. At a public service they saw lines of Believers in uniform attire file into the meetinghouse, the brethren taking their stand in ranks on the left side of the room and sisters on the right. After singing a hymn or anthem and hearing a discourse by one of the leaders, the Believers began a series of religious dances and marches spontaneously interspersed with shorter songs and testimonies. As the service progressed, emotions often increased, attended by such Pentecostal manifestations as having visions and shaking, turning, speaking in tongues, and "singing in the gift."But singing pervaded Shaker life. They sang in private family services, in special song services, in greeting visitors, in leisure times, and sometimes even at work.

In their worship the Believers played no musical instruments, which for the Shaker had disturbing associations. Instruments had too often been used "to excite lasciviousness, and to invite and stimulate men to destroy each others' lives." But more important, the Shakers believed that the direct result of introducing elaborate instrumental music into a church had always been to "induce a lifeless form." For the same reason they did not countenance part-singing or reliance on trained choirs led by a professional musician. They instead wanted "each one for one" to seek "that power of God that alone saves the soul from sin."

The Shakers, like others in the Dissenting tradition, were reacting against the exclusion of the common man from full participation in religious worship. But the American Shakers did not sing the psalms, hymns, or revival choruses of the Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Baptists, or Methodists among whom they were raised. They found the texts of these songs surcharged with erroneous doctrines or sentiments. They felt impelled to make new songs of their own. For melodies they turned, as other groups were then doing, to Anglo-American folk music, itself a tradition that favored unaccompanied solo or unison performance. Sophisticated observers often recognized—with derision—the traditional source of the Shaker songs. A high-toned Virginian, for example, wrote that he had heard the Kentucky Shakers sing such tunes as "Fire in the Mountains" and others "made use of among the vulgar class at their frolicks." And many of the Shakers were well supplied with such melodies. By his own word the early Shaker leader Elder Issachar Bates could in his youth sing "about every song that was going, whether civil, military, sacred, or profane." He had been a fifer-boy at the Battle of Bunker Hill.

But there was another and deeper reason why the Shakers drew on secular folk song. As the music that they knew and loved best, the tunes met one of the Shakers' major aesthetic criteria, that of helping the members to "unite" in worship. They needed familiar songs that even indifferently gifted members could join in singing, ones "substantial, not given to great extreems, forcible, clear & plain." In services they used them to bring the feelings and thoughts of the Believers into harmony, at times even appointing a specific song to be sung in every village at the same hour, to achieve a more perfect union. They sent songs by travelers or in letters from society to society, finding that they operated "like the magnetic telegraph, to convey love and union from one branch of Zion to another" and "strengthen the bond of relationship already existing with every true Believer." When used with the dances and marches, the songs had a doubly strong effect. The Believer saw these exercises as "beautiful and glorious" because their "unity and harmony" were "emblematical of the one spirit by which the people of God are led."

The Shakers, however, did not simply borrow the World's music. They instead used it freely as a musical language with which to create new melodies. Shaker musical creativity was encouraged by a second important Shaker aesthetic principle, namely, that only those songs were recommendable that bore the "feeling" of being "given or matured under a heavenly sensation or spiritual impulse"—in other words, ones "received by divine inspiration." The Shakers left many accounts of these gifts. "I have listened for hours," wrote one sister, "to delightful music, which seemed to flood the air high above my head. And tho' it seemed to be human voices, it sounded like chimes of bells, of different sizes & tones, but in perfect harmony." At other times, she said, "I heard no audible voice, but felt my soul filled with music which flowed forth in songs," sitting at twilight singing "one new song after another till they seemingly numbered hundreds, all joined together like links in a chain." Another saw "Hymns in the darkest hours of the night suspended from the ceiling over her head, written in letters of gold" and arose, struck a light, and wrote down verses for which others would supply a tune. Other Shakers received songs from heavenly spirits while dreaming or having a vision or sang them in possession states as "instruments" of spirits.

As a corollary of their openness to inspiration, the Shakers declined even to be bound to any one set of songs or mode of worship. "No gift or order of God," they held, "can be binding on Believers for a longer term of time than it can be profitable to their travel in the gospel." In consequence, new songs kept crowding old ones from the repertory, and as the decades passed, song type succeeded song type. In the earliest years their congregational music was the "solemn song," frequently a ballad tune sung with vocables instead of words. About 1805 these were displaced by long doctrinal hymns, and these in turn gave way about 1820 to shorter hymns of sentiment, both sets of hymns being sung to melodies taken from balladry—in particular, to long-phrase tunes associated with eighteenth-century broadside ballads. Dance, which began as a spontaneous expression of an individual's emotional transport, was regularized in the 1780s, and in the eighteenth century the Shakers practiced at least seven different forms, each with its own distinctive set of tunes. These were performed by a vocal band standing apart while the main body of Believers "went forth in the dance." Two dances, the "regular step" and the "holy order," continued popular until the Civil War years. Meantime, new dances had been introduced, and beginning in the 1820s, some six forms of marching, all with their special songs. The dances fell into disuse by the 1880s as the number of aged members increased, but some marches were still practiced in "young people's meetings" as late as the 1930s. During the pauses between these "laboring exercises," the Believers began in 1810 to sing short "extra songs" and about the same time accepted the use of long anthems, usually settings of scriptural passages, to open a service. Between 1837 and 1850, during the period of intense revivalism called "Mother's Work" or "The Era of Spirit Manifestations" there was an astonishing outpouring of "gift songs," many of which had rhapsodic melodic structures and texts sometimes wholly or partly in unknown tongues or pidgin English.

Beginning about 1870 the early folksong repertory began to be supplanted. Shakerism, mirroring American genteel middle-class culture, increasingly accepted non-traditional musical practices. This movement was led by the two New Hampshire societies, the North Family at Mount Lebanon, and the nearby Canaan families. A Shaker periodical was their vehicle for introducing improvements to the other societies. At the reformers' urging, most other communities now purchased pianos and organs and got lessons in music taught by a brother from New Hampshire. An entirely new repertory, mostly consciously composed and harmonized by rule by the leading musicians in New Hampshire, Mount Lebanon, and Canaan, were printed in a dozen hymnals between 1875 and 1908. This musical phase is represented in the film by the hymn "Gratitude," sung by Sr. Bertha Lindsay with Sr. Lillian Phelps accompanying her on the piano.

Early or late, Shaker repertory and practice, like the demographics of the membership, were always complex, but the following over-simplified summary may clarify the extent of the change registered in the published Shaker hymnals. It was in essence a shift from one musical system to another:
(1) from song often spontaneously "received" to song consciously crafted according to "scientific" rules;
(2) from song learned chiefly by ear from another singer to song learned by eye off a printed page;
(3) from song deriving from traditional ballad and dance-tune models to songs patterned on popular music, in particular Sunday school hymns and parlor ballads;
(4) from unison song to song that might be sung with harmonies or accompanied by a keyboard instrument;
(5) from songs using a variety of five-toned, six-toned, and modal scales to songs mostly in a major key;
(6) from performances relatively unconscious of effect to presentations exploiting "cultivated" features like covered tones, vibrato, retards, crescendos, and sculpted phrasing and "proper" enunciation of words;
(7) from group singing to performances given to audiences by gifted members singing in quartets and trios; and
(8) from performances almost exclusively within the Shaker community to ones not infrequently shared with the outside world in political and ecumenical gatherings.
(9) from songs grounded on Ann Lee and Shaker doctrine to songs of Christian sentiment.
It was, in sum, a change in how songs originated, in their musical models and materials, in their performance styles, in their textual content, and in the contexts in which they were used.

American typically associate traditional musical systems with older layers of culture, with rural culture, with working-class culture, and with cultures marginal to the American mainstream. They identify the second musical system with urban life, with education and cultivation, with wealth and social prominence, and with progress. Historically we have many instances of groups that have shifted their allegiance from one of these musical systems to the other. To reject the mainstream educated music for a traditional system usually has accompanied revolt against the social, economic, religious, and political privileges (and hence the taste) of an elite. Those who withdrew from standing-order congregations in the aftermath of the Great Awakening of the 1740's made such a musical assertion, rejecting composed psalm tunes for hymn texts put to ballad tunes. Methodists in the early nineteenth century supplemented sedate hymns with "choruses," songs with repeated lines and refrains that excited throngs could easily catch by ear at camp meetings and revivals. Adventists in the North and slaves in the South did the same. Through their music all these groups asserted a new and more egalitarian religious vision. Early Shaker song served a similar religious and social thrust.

The other shift has been more common in recent American experience—the rejection of traditional music in favor of more prestigious popular or classical music, although beginning with minstrelsy many of the new popular styles also had roots in folk music. In the latter half of the nineteenth century the Shakers were only one of many American religious groups turning from folk to popular styles. Shape-note tune-book compilers like the Methodist William Hauser of North Carolina and Georgia also did so.

Like the other groups, the Shakers would have lost most of their earlier traditional songs if they had not begun in the early nineteenth century to write them down in a simplified systems of musical notation. Shaker musicians developed several that used letters of the alphabet as the heads of the notes and dispensed with fixed pitch and key signatures. Between the 1820s and the 1880s most of the villages had scribes who recorded songs in this "letteral" notation. We know that fire and other circumstances caused the loss of many of the song manuscripts, but some 850 of them are presently known to survive. They hold a repertory of, I estimate, at least eight to ten thousand different melodies, perhaps many more. This is a body of folk songs far outnumbering all the ballads and even all the other spiritual folksongs recorded from Anglo-American tradition, whether by early compilers of religious tune books or by twentieth-century field collectors. Yet the Shakers at their height in the 1840s had a membership of only six thousand persons in some nineteen villages scattered from Maine across New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New York to Ohio, and Kentucky, and a few smaller, short-lived outposts.

In the nineteenth century several hundred of the Believers could read the music manuscripts. With the change of taste in the 1870s, however, younger Shakers began to study conventional musical notation and as a consequence to lose all knowledge of the letteral system. To most twentieth-century Shakers the early tune transcriptions became a closed book, but the sisters at Sabbathday Lake and Eldress Marguerite Frost at Canterbury recalled a good number of the early songs. Eldress Marguerite learned hers during a brief revival of interest in them at Canterbury, where Eldress Mary Wilson between 1912 and 1915 would post early songs on a bulletin board. Young sisters like Marguerite Frost copied and learned them. Love of them had never been lost in the Maine communities, always among the smallest, poorest, and most traditional of the Shaker villages. In the 1870s the ministry in Maine even held out for some time against the urging of others that it purchase instruments and music books from the World. "The truth is," wrote one elder there, that instruments "lead to fashionable life. The more musical instruments the less manual labor, more dress, &c &c. For us in Maine there is no way or hope, only, to work out our salvation."

In Maine many of the early songs continue to be used in services even yet in the twenty-first century. When the singers in Tom Davenport's film came among the Shakers as children, they heard the older Shakers sing them. Sr. Elsie McCool learned her repertory at Sabbathday Lake, where she grew up. Sr. Mildred Barker was already a young woman when she came to Sabbathday Lake in 1931 on the closing of the community at Alfred, Maine, and had learned her songs in her earlier home. Eldress Harriett Coolbroth at Alfred had been particularly pleased to find that Mildred was musically gifted and had a passion for learning songs. In the evenings she often invited the child to her room and taught her old favorites. Srs. Marie Burgess and Frances Carr came to Sabbathday Lake in the 1930s and learned from all the older singers there, especially from Sr. Mildred. After I began visiting the Sabbathday Lake community in 1960, Sr. Mildred started to tape songs for me and for the community library. She remembered more than 200 of the early songs, continuing for years to recall ones long forgotten.

Sister Mildred had a keen sense of the difference between the traditionality of the singers at Sabbathday Lake and the non-traditional preferences of those at Canterbury. In 1962 she resisted Bill Randle's wish to record the two communities together for his large anthology The Shaker Heritage. She wrote to me then, "Frankly, I do not feel that the 2 families would do very well together as we seem to sing so differently. Perhaps because the Canterbury singers were trained and we were not."

I fortunately learned of Tom Davenport's film project in time to prompt him to make a film record of some of the "motioned" or pantomimed songs that I knew Sister Mildred could perform. The film was unable, however, to offer a sampling of all the song types that once had a place in Shaker worship. No one could sing, for example, any of the early wordless "solemn songs" or dance tunes. Doubtless sheer happenstance played a role in determining which ones would live in memory. But after the uniting of the two Maine societies in 1931, the members tended to sing only the pieces already known to both groups. Sister Mildred's comments show that she also kept many songs like "Mother has come with her beautiful song" because they brought to mind older Shakers whom she loved. The melodies of other songs have intrinsic appeal. The singers most often seemed to me to hold on to a song because its words moved them. But Sr. Mildred went further. Her words often implied a feeling of the unity of inspiration in text and tune. She wrote me, for example, in 1976, "You will never know the happiness that was mine when I realized that someone else was as interested in those spiritual messages as I was. It seemed to me at that time that there were hundreds of them that would be forever forgotten, for so many present day Shakers seemed to prefer to sing from the modern books which were as one old Dr. told me, 'Nothing but Sunday school songs.' He was probably a little plain in his opinion but I think that except for a special few he was right. The real spirit of baptism was not there. The fervor is in the old ones that you and I love but lost in the tepid poetry set to music.... What a beautiful Gift it was!" Eldress Marguerite Frost had a similar view. "We must remember," she wrote me in 1965, "that these were not just songs, but deep feelings from the soul."

The remembered songs are predominantly testimonial. They vow renewed dedication. They voice thankfulness and joy in the calling. They are declarations of need for a more careful daily walk or a deeper inner life. In the more modern compositions, these feeling are stated directly. Older songs at their best drew more often upon symbols once common in Shaker thought and speech. They come from the work-a-day activities of household and farm and workshop, from folk tradition, and especially from the Bible. Almost always the Shakers re-defined symbols that already had currency. Thus for the Believers the willow does not stand for weeping but for bending to God's will. The dove is not a symbol of the Holy Ghost or a messenger of hope to Noah, but an emblem of the humble soul. The valley is neither a place for penitence nor the valley of the shadow of death, but the low vale of humility. Jordan's banks are not stormy but covered with lilies for the faithful, and its water roll with cleansing, not mortal, tides. Many of the songs are filled with metaphors for the activity of the soul that was the goal of Shaker worship. They call the Believer to rouse from "death," "bondage," or a "scattered sense" and to "wake up" and "shake out all the starch and stiffening." One thoroughly characteristic song that was a favorite of Sister Mildred says,
            I feel the need of a deeper baptism
            Into the work of the Lord,
            The Holy Ghost and fire from heaven,
            The sharp and quickening word!
            I want to eat at my Father's table
            The bread that perisheth not,
            And drink of the fountain pure and holy
            That flows from the city of God.

The importance of song to the Shakers grew directly from its relation to this quickened life. In worship the songs helped to lift the believer from dull spirits into "life and power." They could even be the means by which the seeker passed from the World into faith. One early convert said, for example, that when he first met the English Shakers near Albany, he was not affected by the preaching of the elders, although they bore "a faithful and sound testimony against all sin of every name and nature." But when Mother Ann Lee and "her little family sat down that afternoon and sang in "a solemn and heavenly manner," he said, "I felt as tho I had got among the heavenly hosts, and had no right there; for I had neither part nor lot in it. I cried aloud, in distress of soul; for I believed it to be the worship of the living God, such as my ears had never heard, nor my soul ever felt before." Once quickened, Believers found their own creative powers and contributed to this tradition of Pentecostal folk song. "And what makes it more striking," wrote one Shaker in 1820, "it is those who had never learned to sing at all—they could scarcely follow after those who were singers. Now they will sing as beautiful as I ever heard anyone; yea beautiful Anthems & Songs, all given when they are under the beautiful operations of the power of God."