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  Gentle Words

The Tudor Choir - Doug Fullington


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The Shakers, or United Society of Believers, originated in England around 1747. In 1770, the charismatic Ann Lee became the acknowledged leader of this small, spirited band. Their animated and ecstatic worship practices incorporating dancing and singing gave rise to their common name. Directed by a revelation, nine Shakers, including Mother Ann Lee, departed for America in 1774, to escape persecution and spread their unique message. Stanzas from the early hymn Mother tell the story:

At Manchester, in England, This blessed fire began, And like a flame in stubble, From house to house it ran: A few at first receiv’d it, And did their lusts forsake; And soon their inward power Brought on a mighty shake.

The rulers cried, “Delusion! Who can these Shakers be? Are these the wild fanatics, Bewitched by Ann Lee? We’ll stop this noise and shaking, It never shall prevail; We’ll seize the grand deceiver; And thrust her into jail.”

Before the learned councils, Though oft she was arraign’d, Her life was uncondemned, Her character unstain’d: And by her painful travel, Her suff’rings and her toil, A little Church was formed On the European soil.

This little band of union, In apostolic life, Remain’d awhile in England, Among the sons of strife; Till the Columbian Eagle, Borne by an eastern breeze, Convey’d this little Kingdom Across the rolling Seas.

To mark their shining passage, Good angels flew before, Towards the land of promise, Columbia’s happy shore. Hail, thou victorious gospel! And that auspicious day, When Mother safely landed In Hudson’s lovely bay!

Near Albany they settled, And waited for a while, Until a mighty shaking Made all the desert smile. At length a gentle whisper, The tidings did convey, And many flock’d to Mother, To learn the living way.

Through storms of persecution, The truth she did maintain, And show’d how sin was conquer’d, And how we’re born again: The old corrupted nature, From place to place she trod, And show’d a new creation, The only way to God.

About four years she labour’d With the attentive throng, Confirm’d the young believers, And help’d their souls along. At length she clos’d her labour, And vanish’d out of sight, And left the Church increasing, In the pure gospel light.

“Put your hands to work and your hearts to God,” Mother Ann told her followers, and this they did. Shaker communal societies spread throughout the eastern United States and west to Ohio, Kentucky, and Indiana, with a total estimated population of 6,000 at its peak by the 1840s. Guided by the principles of celibacy and devotion to the gospel, these societies were characterized by pacifism, gender/racial equality, and an astounding industriousness and invention. With one society still remaining today in Maine, the Shakers have outlived all other “utopian” religious communities, leaving an indelible mark on American culture.

The visionary and original Shaker spirit perhaps found its greatest expression in music and dance. As a result, Shaker music represents the largest body of folksong in American history with approximately 10,000 songs in existence. Seeking separation from the world, the early Shakers avoided all harmony and instrumental accompaniment in their music, and created their own musical notation to record their unique, unfettered songs. These melodies reveal an inspired imagination and strong sense of musical line and proportion.

Because Shaker music is undeniably important to American musical history and culture, my goal in arranging these Shaker melodies for choirs is to make them accessible and useful in modern worship and concert settings. Central to all Shaker art and music is the theme of functionality, defined by use. It is my hope that these arrangements will move the Shaker songs from historical text into living musical settings. They seek to combine the Shaker themes of beauty, simplicity and utility.

As a composer and arranger, my approach to these songs grew out of an intense involvement with the material, rather than a preconceived idea rooted in my particular musical style. I have attempted to maintain the simplicity and directness of the original, unison melodies, with an emphasis on unison singing and antiphonal performance which were at the very heart of Shaker musical practice. The majority of Shaker songs still remain hidden from public view, requiring a massive effort of compilation and transcription. I am most grateful to the scholars and performers whose passion and activity in the realm of Shaker song study and transcription have brought so much to light: E.D. Andrews, Mitzie Collins, Harold Cook, Randy Folger, Roger Hall, and Daniel Patterson.

My first introduction to Shaker music came through reading E.D. Andrews’ famous book The Gift to be Simple. The man who brought Shaker music alive to my ears and imagination was Randy Folger, who performed daily in the meeting house at Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill in Kentucky. Randy’s position as Music and Special Programs Manager at Shaker Village gave him the opportunity to establish a deep, intimate relationship with Shaker music. As anyone who heard him knows, he gave himself wholly to the songs, resurrecting the power and spirit of an inspired Shaker singer. It was Randy who first encouraged me in this project of arranging Shaker songs. Sadly, his life was taken in an auto accident in 1999. This recording is dedicated to him, in gratitude for his friendship, encouragement, and inspiration.

To Randy– your voice breathed life and goes on singing.

Kevin Siegfried



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