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Song History: "Lord of the Dance" and "Simple Gifts"

Tony is a writer and photographer who lives in Pretoria, South Africa.

Learn how the song "Lord of the Dance" emerged from the hymn "Simple Gifts."

Learn how the song "Lord of the Dance" emerged from the hymn "Simple Gifts."

"Lord of the Dance" Began With a Simple Dance Tune

A simple dance tune composed in Alfred, Maine, in 1848 has circled the globe, touching the hearts and minds of people—Catholics and Protestants, Jews and Buddhists, and people of no religion at all. It's a song of about 16 bars of music and eight lines of words, both music and words of a gentle simplicity.

The song has, despite its simplicity, found its way into ballet music, a religious song or two, and a dance spectacular that is very far removed from where it started.

'Tis the Gift to Be Simple . . .

The song is called “Simple Gifts” and was written by Shaker Elder Joseph Brackett, who would, I'm sure, be amazed—even perhaps a little scandalised—by the uses his little tune has been put to.

Elder Joseph Brackett. Image Wikipedia

Elder Joseph Brackett. Image Wikipedia

A manuscrpt of Mary Hazzard of the New Lebanon, NY Shaker community shows this original version of the melody. Image Wikipedia

A manuscrpt of Mary Hazzard of the New Lebanon, NY Shaker community shows this original version of the melody. Image Wikipedia

The Song "Simple Gifts"

“Simple Gifts” is often described as a Shaker hymn, even sometimes mis-attributed as being a traditional song, but it was written as a dance song by Elder Brackett. It describes a dance routine used in Shaker worship. The full words of the song as written by Brackett are:

"'Tis the gift to be simple, 'tis the gift to be free,

'Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,

And when we find ourselves in the place just right,

'Twill be in the valley of love and delight.

When true simplicity is gain'd,

To bow and to bend we shan't be asham'd,

To turn, turn will be our delight,

Till by turning, turning we come round right."

Is It "'Tis a Gift" or "'Tis the Gift"?

The first words are often incorrectly written as, “'Tis a gift...” but it should have the definite article “the” because the writer was very sure of which gift he was writing about, the gift of faith, so it's “the gift.”

A Shaker dance. Image Wikipedia

A Shaker dance. Image Wikipedia

Who Were the Shakers?

The Shakers came into being in England in the mid-18th Century when there was almost constant fighting between Catholics and Protestants. Like the Quakers, the Shakers believed that every person is able to find God within themselves rather than through the mediation of clergy. The worship of the Shakers was rather more demonstrative than the quieter Quaker meetings, with a lot of singing and dancing.

The church was founded by Mother Ann Lee, the daughter of a blacksmith. She was born in Manchester on 29 February 1736 and was forced by her father to marry a man called Abraham Standley. She fell pregnant eight times and eight times her children died, four of them were stillborn and the other four died before they turned six. Mother Ann apparently had a physical repulsion towards sex and developed some radical religious ideas as well as a commitment to gender equality.

The name “Shaker” came about because of the trembling that she and her followers experienced during times of prayer and worship. She taught her followers that these manifestations were the result of the Holy Spirit cleansing them. She also taught that refraining from sexual relations could lead them to complete holiness.

In 1774 Mother Ann and a group of her followers landed in New York. They had fled England in the face of increasing persecution as a result of her radical teachings. She was in fact herself imprisoned several times. In one period of imprisonment she had a revelation that "a complete cross against the lusts of generation, added to a full and explicit confession, before witnesses, of all the sins committed under its influence, was the only possible remedy and means of salvation." After this she was chosen as the leader of the Church and began to call herself “Ann, the Word” or “Mother Ann.”

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In the United States she and her followers undertook some missionary journeys and, in spite of sometimes violent opposition, won many converts, though the Church was never at any time very large, reaching something in the order of 20000 members at its height. Because of the total celibacy of its members the Church could only grow by means of attracting converts and by adopting orphans. By 2008 the Church had only a handful of members left.

Central beliefs in the Church, apart from celibacy, were the sanctity of work and the necessity of simplicity. The Church became known for the quality of the workmanship and simplicity of design that went into anything they produced, in particular, buildings and furniture.

The Church calls itself the United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing.

Martha Graham, Letter to The World, "The Kick". 1940. photo Barbara Morgan

Martha Graham, Letter to The World, "The Kick". 1940. photo Barbara Morgan

How the Tune Appears in "Appalachian Spring"

In 1944 choreographer Martha Graham commissioned a ballet score from renowned composer Aaron Copland. The story line of the ballet was a celebration of Pennsylvania pioneers in the 1800s after they had built a new farmhouse. The characters in the ballet included a newly-wed couple and a revivalist preacher. At first the ballet was unnamed. Shortly before the première on 30 October 1944 Martha Graham suggested the title “Appalachian Spring” which she took from a stanza of Hart Crane's poem, “The Bridge”:

"O Appalachian Spring! I gained the ledge;

Steep, inaccessible smile that eastward bends

And northward reaches in that violet wedge

Of Adirondacks!"

The music of the seventh section of the ballet suite consists of five variations on the melody of “Simple Gifts”. This is a very grand use of a very simple tune.

Sydney Carter

Sydney Carter

Tony McGregor (left) singing in Assumption Parish Church, Durban, c 1974

Tony McGregor (left) singing in Assumption Parish Church, Durban, c 1974

The Use of "Simple Gifts" in "Lord of the Dance"

One of the ways in which many people have become familiar with “Simple Gifts” is through its use in the religious song “Lord of the Dance.” This song is, like “Simple Gifts”, often thought of as somehow “traditional” but it was in fact written by British poet, folk singer and songwriter Sydney Carter.

Carter, was born in Camden Town, London, England on 6 May 1915 (coincidentally, he shares a birthday with Elder Joseph Brackett, who was born on 6 May 1797 in Cumberland, Maine, USA) and died in March 2004.

Carter described “The Lord of the Dance” like this: "I see Christ as the incarnation of the piper who is calling us. He dances that shape and pattern which is at the heart of our reality. By Christ I mean not only Jesus; in other times and places, other planets, there may be other Lords of the Dance. But Jesus is the one I know of first and best. I sing of the dancing pattern in the life and words of Jesus.” - Green Print for Song (1974).

This song has become popular with church congregations around the world. As is the case for many, I came to know “Simple Gifts” by getting to know “Lord of the Dance.” I was in the early to mid 1970s living in Durban, South Africa, and worshipping with the congregation of the parish of Our Lady of the Assumption in the suburb of Umbilo. I became involved in the music ministry in that parish and this song was one of those we played and sang in our weekly Mass.

The popularity of “Lord of the Dance” surprised Carter: "I did not think the churches would like it at all. I thought many people would find it pretty far flown, probably heretical and anyway dubiously Christian. But in fact people did sing it and, unknown to me, it touched a chord ... Anyway, it's the sort of Christianity I believe in."

Michael Flatley and “Lord of the Dance”

Irish-American dancer Michael Flatley (the fastest feet on earth!) devised a dance show that told a story about characters based on Irish folklore and Biblical stories. In a rather weird twist the leading character in the piece is called “The Lord of the Dance” and the music uses the melody of “Simple Gifts” to introduce this character.

The music of the show was written and arranged by Ronan Hardiman.

The “Simple Gifts” melody is used by the character “The Little Spirit” who plays it on a pipe at various stages in the show.

I have seen the show twice in South Africa and loved it each time, and each time I wondered about the way this simple melody has travelled. I wonder indeed what Elder Brackett would have to say about this show, with all its glitz and fancy lighting and very loud music – all the very antithesis of simplicity?

Great music should always lead one back into oneself, into a different perspective on one's life, as all art should. Clearly Elder Brackett's simple melody works like this for many, many people. It has stood the test of time, as they say, and opened people's minds to something beyond the ordinary, something simple yet deeply profound, and in so doing it has moved them.

Dance then, wherever you may be
I am the Lord of the Dance, said He!
And I'll lead you all, wherever you may be
And I'll lead you all in the Dance, said He!

© 2010 Tony McGregor


Tony McGregor (author) from South Africa on February 20, 2011:

Gerry - thanks for that. I would love to visit Ireland and never travel without my camera!

Go well, friend.

Love and peace


sligobay from east of the equator on February 19, 2011:

Hi Tony: Thanks for your visit to my Ballinful Hub. You brought me back to the images that I loved for five years. I highly recommend a visit to Ireland and that you bring your camera. After my year back in the States and reunion with family and old friends; it looks as though my trips to Ireland will be for holidays and business for the foreseeable future. I have an Irish business partner who will keep me returning to the Emerald Isle. Thanks again for the music.

Tony McGregor (author) from South Africa on February 18, 2011:

Gerry - thanks so much for comeing back here. My Sarah has also had that complaint and received pretty much the same answer! I think she likes her name now!

Glad you found this Hub useful.

Love and peace


sligobay from east of the equator on February 17, 2011:

Tony: My daughter once complained of how popular and common her name was for her birth year. I reminded her of it being the name of the wife of Abraham the father of the belief in one God and the miracle of her conception of Isaac in her late years. I went to great lengths before she told me she was just kidding.

I did not even recognize the connection between the shaker song and Lord of the Dance before this Hub. This was an ah-ha moment. Two of my favorite songs are just one of my favorites after all.

Tony McGregor (author) from South Africa on February 17, 2011:

Gerry - thank you so much for stopping by and for your very kind words. My older daugher's name is also Sarah. I hope your Sarah enjoys the Hub!

Thanks again

Love and peace


sligobay from east of the equator on February 16, 2011:

Hello Tony: I love this song and this Hub. You've done an excellent job weaving all the historical threads together.

There is one more birth that occurred on May 6th and that is the birth of my daughter Sarah Ann. I am sending her a link to your Hub and know that she will appreciate your fine work. Thank you.

Tony McGregor (author) from South Africa on January 03, 2011:

Peggy - thanks for stopping by and leaving a great comment. These few bars of music have indeed given much to peopleall over. Wish we could all learn the gift to be simple - that might make a lot of difference to the world also.

Love and peace


Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on January 03, 2011:

What a great hub to read when starting my day out on this side of the world. Interesting history and beautiful videos. The last one was fantastic with ballet and tap dancing in combination with that great music. Just think what joy these few bars of music have added to people all over the world! Thanks! I'm smiling!

Tony McGregor (author) from South Africa on June 27, 2010:

Epigramman - I thank you, sir, for your very kind and thoughful comment.

Love and peace


epigramman on June 27, 2010:

You sir are a historian, art curator and musicologist of the highest order! An infinitely fascinating and absorbing piece of history as essayed by you in a thoroughly enjoyable and well researched manner. Bravo!

Tony McGregor (author) from South Africa on April 28, 2010:

De Cuz - Thanks for dropping by and leaving such a nice comment. I appreciate it. And I'm glad it evoked some good memories for you!

Love and peace


Michael Mitas from Portsmouth on April 24, 2010:

Tonymac.....thanks for this piece, it brought back so many simple memories, ones that i had put away and forgotten. My son, now 40, was about 6 years old when i was invited to a morning assembly to hear the "little darlings" do their stuff. One of the songs they perormed was Lord of the Dance, and how charming it was. This was the first time I had heard this. Over the years many people, choirs have performed this piece, but Michael Flatley performance must surely be one of the most spine tingling expositions. The production was far from "simple", but I have to say it still managed to convey a certain powerful spiritual atmosphere about it.

Amost informative Hub, which filled in a lot of spaces in my knowledge....Thanks

Tony McGregor (author) from South Africa on April 02, 2010:

Poet, thanks for your visit and comment. I appreciate it very much.

Love and peace


Silver Poet from the computer of a midwestern American writer on April 02, 2010:

Great hub. Thoroughly enjoyed reading it.

Tony McGregor (author) from South Africa on February 18, 2010:

Duchess - thanks for stopping by and reading. Your comment is appreciated. It is a wonderful song indeed.

Love and peace


Duchess OBlunt on February 18, 2010:

Wow, I so enjoyed this hub! Great music on the video and a wonderful way of telling us the history.

Tony McGregor (author) from South Africa on February 11, 2010:

Ray - thanks so much for your kind words. Much appreciated.

Love and peace


caretakerray on February 11, 2010:


I really enjoy your hubs. they are so well written and informative. The history of the "Shakers" was especially fascinating. Thanx for the history lesson, :)


Tony McGregor (author) from South Africa on February 10, 2010:

I find it so amazing that this simple, yet beautiful song, has touched so many people around the world.

I also am amazed that the Shakers, of whom there were relatively so few, have touched so many, with their beautiful design and workmanship and their commitment to a simple lifestyle.

Thanks you all for reading and commenting so beautifully. I appreciate it very much indeed and your comments help so much to make the writing worthwhile for me.

Love and peace


Mystique1957 from Caracas-Venezuela on February 09, 2010:

Thanks a lot, Tony!

New thing here I`ve learned. I had read about the Quakers but not the Shakers. The music is soothing and it is wonderful to see what a "simple song" did around the world. Perhaps, blessed by "The Gift", this was possible and that is why it is so magical and mysterious, don`t you think?

Great hub!

Thumbs up!

Love and blessings, my friend,


prettydarkhorse from US on February 09, 2010:

moving yet simple words, nice story and music indeed, Thank you Tony for this wonderful hub, Maita

Kelly Kline Burnett from Madison, Wisconsin on February 08, 2010:

Oh, this Hub was fun! Loved the videos! Great music and you connected the dots for us! Awesome! Proud to be a fan!

cameciob on February 08, 2010:

Tony, this was a very good read for me. I did not know anything about this song. After listening to the songs I realized I hear it before. I like the way you put your hub together also.

Barbara from Stepping past clutter on February 08, 2010:

Tony, this song is nostalgic for me-- and emotional on many levels. I danced to Simple Gift back in "the day" and when my father died, it was a no-brainer to select "Lord of the Dance" as one of the congregational hymns; Dad loved to dance and loved this song.

I have always admired Shaker furniture, as James mentioned. Its quality and simplicity carries the message contained in Simple Gifts.

Copeland's piece always raises a tear and a hope. Thanks for reminding me of its profound message.

Micky Dee on February 08, 2010:

Very nice story, very nice music, very nice dancing, very nice hub! Thanks

James A Watkins from Chicago on February 08, 2010:

Very cool, Hub, man. I enjoyed the history of the Shakers (great furniture makers) and the story of this fine tune. Thanks for the pleasure.

Tammy Lochmann on February 08, 2010:

Thanks for telling about the history of this song. I enjoyed all the videos too.

Hummingbird5356 on February 08, 2010:

I too know this song from childhood but didn't know its source. A very interesting hub.

Tony McGregor (author) from South Africa on February 08, 2010:

Lori - yes many school children know the song.

Winsome - it is indeed a charming song.

Thanks for visiting and commenting.

Love and peace


Winsome from Southern California by way of Texas on February 07, 2010:

Wonderful story Tony. I used to thunder it out on my Martin D-35 charmed by it's simplicity and mystery, never knowing its origin. Thank so much for filling us in.

loriamoore on February 07, 2010:

Funny thing --- I can remember us singing this song in like 4th or 5th grade chorus or something.

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