Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Simple gifts - the CD


A real, and topical, discovery that was first featured here in 2006 to share with you again 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 a lot more very fine music that 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 directing 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.
Amen to that. More simple gifts here and here.
Reblogged from 22 Jan, 2006. Image credit Fruitland Museum. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

5 comments:

Anonymous Soprano said...

Thank you!

Sometimes I feel like I'm fighting an uphill, muddy battle to get American (classical) music more well known. I try to include something by unknown American composers on every recital or concert, and I hawk their music religiously.

It just bothers me that in a country where "I Wonder as I Wonder" is common Christmas musical coin, very few people even know who John Jacob Niles WAS!

Pliable said...

John Jacob Niles -

http://www.overgrownpath.com/2008/12/sweet-irrational-worship.html

Anonymous Soprano said...

You know, I had seen that post earlier, and neglected to check out Runyon's site -- I popped by and listened to the sample. The My Brother Reported Missing in Action was beautiful...and I had never heard it, and can't imagine why, as I have spent countless hours hunting down recordings of Niles music (hard), and sheet music (harder).

I foresee another recital, and I just recently did an all-American program...

Pliable said...

AS, when I first published that Niles/Merton post in December on the fortieth anniversary of Thomas Merton's death I didn't think it received the readership that the music and the poems deserved.

Perhaps second time around ...

The Jesus Sufi said...

You know, of course that Thomas Merton wrote a book about the Shakers
published by the wonderful folks at Maryknoll,Orbis Books, titled Seeking Paradise: The Spirit of the Shakers.It is well worth the effort..."The peculiar grace of a Shaker chair is due to the fact that it was made by someone capable of believing that an angel might come and sit on it," Thomas Merton