"Lord of the Dance"—A Song That Danced Its Way Around the World
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.
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.
“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."
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.”
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.”
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.
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
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.
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!
The text and all images on this page, unless otherwise indicated, are by Tony McGregor who hereby asserts his copyright on the material. Should you wish to use any of the text or images feel free to do so with proper attribution and, if possible, a link back to this page. Thank you.
© Tony McGregor 2009