San Rafael Valley, AZ ~~ Photo by Bill Haas

Friday, February 12, 2010


For me, the most rewarding, revelatory experiences when visiting our country's diverse regions was to learn first-hand about its history and culture and savor its music, food, language and arts. I've learned more by getting behind the wheel of my Lazy Daze than I could ever learn from turning the pages of a book. Even if it had photos and illustrations!!
An example: SHAKER -- more than functional pieces of furniture!

This is the welcoming road into the bucolic, restored Pleasant Hill Shaker Village, a National Historic Landmark near Harrodsburg, Kentucky, once a prosperous, productive, communal farming community with some, might say, unorthodox religious beliefs and practices.
Nothing can match the Shaker artistic legacy of handsome, simple, well-crafted, furniture, but the only thing actually still made on these premises are brooms and scouring brushes. These are made by the park's docents during demonstration tours of the community, no longer inhabited by Shakers.
Heritage rock fences are common in this part of Kentucky, and in some areas, in Lexington for example, the fences are repaired with mortar. Not so for the fences in the Pleasant Hill area. The village has twenty-five miles of historic dry stone fences.
The Dry Stone (no mortar) Conservancy holds an annual competition to rebuild stone structures. Contestants come from around the globe for the festivities and to learn the craft of dry masonry and have been responsible for rebuilding sagging and crumbling sections of the Pleasant Hill fences.
Fourteen buildings have been restored, along with 3000 acres of farmland, and visitors can tour the living history museum and gift shop, eat in the dining hall, stay at the inn and take walking or guided tours of the village.
Shakers were celibate. They believed the institution of marriage to be less perfect than celibacy, yet lived in family groups consisting of the homeless, orphans and converts. Except for communal worship and dining, their homes were segregated, even so far as to have separate entries into buildings. Note the two entrances in the building below.
The gift store readily admits these boxes and ladles are reproductions. However, they proudly claim that all items in the store are at least manufactured in the USA!
Did you know that Joseph Brackett, an Elder in the New Gloucester, Maine Shaker community, wrote a lyrical piece of music in 1848 called "Simple Gifts" and that his composition was incorporated by John Williams into "Air and Simple Gifts" played during Barack Obama's inauguration in 2009? Or that "Simple Gifts" is included in the repertoire of marching bands and drum corps? That Michael Flatley includes it in his show, "Lord of the Dance"? That it first became "world-famous" when it was included in Aaron Copland's score for Martha Graham's "Appalachian Spring"? And best of all, that the lyrics make repeated appearances in the rock band, Weezer's "Red Album"?

So stay with me here: A celibate, pacifist, racially-tolerant Elder in a little-populated, egalitarian religious sect that believes in the dual sexuality of the Creator, and that shakes, trembles and twirls as part of its worship services to fend off evil, writes a piece of music in the mid-1800's that becomes an American musical icon. It enters popular culture in the 1950's, finds its way to a presidential inauguration in the first decade of the 21st Century, crosses the pond to be included in the repertoire of a dance company, and has been adopted by a rock band, churches and marching bands. Here are the lyrics. (Two non-Shaker verses were added later.)

'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 ashamed
To turn, turn will be our delight
Till by turning, turning we come 'round right.

Click on the links to hear different adaptations and see how this Shaker music has evolved and endured for over a century.