Best known for his 1848 composition Simple Gifts, composer Elder Joseph Brackett (1797-1882) served as an important early leader within the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Coming – also known as the Shakers. Born in the coastal town of Cumberland, Maine, Brackett and his family joined the religious communal society by 1808 when the Shakers of Alfred, Maine sought to create a new community in Cumberland County. The new Gorham (Cumberland County) Shakers used the Brackett’s farm as a starting point, growing to over two hundred members. Joseph stayed in Gorham with his family until the entire community moved inland to Poland Hill in 1819, which functioned under the auspices of the New Gloucester (Sabbathday Lake) Shakers.
As a child growing up in a Shaker community, Joseph would have been exposed to song and dance from a very early age. Music played a critical role in the social, educational, and religious life of the Shaker Brother and Sister. With primarily religious themes, Shaker compositions were used daily in full-body worship, part of which included traditional dance. In honor of their founder, Shaker spirituals often focus on founder Mother Ann Lee, celebrating her life, her death, and even her birthday.
Compositions can be split up into three categories: songs, hymns, and anthems. These categories differ by form, voicing, and harmony. Perhaps the most unusual aspect of Shaker music is their early system of letteral notation, in some ways similar to shape note music. While not universal, their unique system often appears in early hymnals. For Brackett’s Simple Gifts, historical manuscripts of the dance song survive in both letteral and standard notation. Instead of placing notes on the five-line staff to indicate the required pitch, the shaker letteral system writes out the pitches by letter, and places them either above or below the preceding pitch to indicate direction of the scale. In conjunction with the stepwise motion of the hymns, the letteral system speaks to a strong accessibility of the music, leading to community-wide participation. Throughout the Shaker’s two hundred year history, over ten thousand songs have been written.
Shaker music can sometimes be difficult to attribute, since songs are often written down multiple times by multiple people, and passed through word of mouth. While there’s no copy of Simple Gifts bearing Brackett’s name, the dance song has been definitively traced back to him. When he composed Simple Gifts in 1848, Joseph Brackett had been a practicing Shaker for forty years and had risen up through the ranks of the sect’s hierarchy, ultimately serving in high leadership as a Church Elder at New Gloucester. He was allegedly visiting the Shaker Community in Alfred, Maine, assisting with religious and community matters, when he composed Simple Gifts. Brackett ultimately lived until 1882, overseeing some of the most prosperous decades for membership and religious zeal in the history of the Shaker community.
In the mid twentieth century, Shaker music like Simple Gifts infiltrated mainstream society as composers began looking towards the perceived “simplicity” of traditional American song in attempts to make sense of the world in the devastating wake of the Second World War. The most notable use of Simple Gifts occurred nearly a century after its composition, when composer Aaron Copeland borrowed the tune for his orchestral suite and ballet with Martha Graham, Appalachian Spring (1944). In the 1970s, Copland had the opportunity to meet with surviving Shakers Sisters – no doubt an interesting conversation that allowed Copeland’s mainstream popularization of Simple Gifts to come full circle.