Sunday, January 22, 2006

Simple Gifts - Shaker chants and spirituals

A real discovery to share with you today. Despite widespread interest in their culture Shaker song remains virtually unknown with one glaring exception - Simple Gifts. This song has been reworked by Aaron Copland and so many others to the point that it is generally assumed that Simple Gifts and Shaker song are one and the same. This is both wrong and a great pity as there is much more very fine music which deserves to reach a much wider audience.

My discovery may help to do that. The library of the Shaker community at Sabbathday Lake, Maine has valuable music archives, including important manuscripts by Elder Otis Sawyer who was an important figure and musician in the Shaker movement. In 1994 a number of songs were transcribed from the Sabbathday Lake archive by Joel Cohen, who then recorded them direcing an ensemble made up of singers from the Sabbathday Lake community, Boston Camerata and Schola Cantorum of Boston. The result was a CD titled Simple Gifts - Shaker chants and spirituals.

These songs on this CD are wonderful discoveries, and they really are discoveries as they were previously truly unknown. With links to folksong and Gregorian chant (the Shaker song In Yonder Valley bears an uncanny resemblance to the plainsong Salve, Regina as it is sung in the ton simple) this is simple, fine and moving music. The singing is exemplary, the recording is demonstration class, and the CD comes with a twenty-two page booklet with notes by Joel Cohen and complete texts. If all this sounds too good to miss here is the clincher. Simple Gifts has been reissued on Warner Classics' Apex super-budget label, and I paid just £5 ($9) for it.

If the other tracks weren't superlative as well the price would be justified by the last of the thirty-four tracks alone - a heart-stopping sixty-four second long 'unreconstructed' rendition of Simple Gifts. And in conclusion it is worth reflecting on Shaker Sister Frances Carr's thoughtful note on this song: 'Although the World has made the song famous, we feel troubled that, in its fame, it is taken so lightly. To Believers it holds a real message reminding us that we do have to come down to 'the place just right' in order to live out Mother's Gospel.'

Simple Gifts - Shaker chants and spirituals is on Apex catalogue number 2564 60367 2

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Fruitlands Museum, Harvard
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1 comment:

Marcu said...

and don't forget, there's a great cover by Wilson Pickett