Wednesday, March 10, 2010

`The Shakers for Us!'

During quiet time in the classroom a teacher played this video of Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring. The title, from Hart Crane’s The Bridge (from “The Dance” in the poem’s second section, “Powhatan’s Daughter”), was suggested to the composer by choreographer Martha Graham, who had commissioned the ballet score:

“O Appalachian Spring! I gained the ledge;
Steep, inaccessible smile that eastward bends
And northward reaches in that violet wedge
Of Adirondacks!”

Appalachian Spring is one of the glories of American music and Copland borrowed one of its themes from the lovely Shaker song “Simple Gifts,” written in 1848 by Elder Joseph Brackett. His lyrics, about holy simplicity, are a study in simplicity:

“'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.”

As the Blakean words suggest, the song was probably sung by Shakers as they danced. For the kids I sang the first four lines, all I could remember, along with Copland’s score. I’ve always admired the Shakers, and for almost 20 years lived in the Capital District of New York, near the epicenter of the earliest Shaker settlements in America. Mother Ann Lee, the sect’s English-born founder, was buried a mile from the newspaper where I worked for more than eight years.

Ronald Knox considers the Shakers in “Some Vagaries of Modern Revivalism,” the second-to-last chapter in Enthusiasm: A Chapter in the History of Religion (1950). After looking at other American religious and utopian communities of the 18th and 19th centuries he writes:

“A child, I think, can be happy anywhere; but the grown-ups – did the privileges of communal marriage compensate them, in fact, for such a drab existence? [The Shakers, in contrast, were doctrinally celibate.] There was more fun to be had, you feel, in the cloistered shades of Mount Lebanon. The Shakers for us!”

Twenty years ago I wrote a long newspaper story about the Darrow School, an exclusive private high school on the grounds of the Shaker settlement at Mount Lebanon, N.Y., the largest in the United States (from 1787 to 1947). It’s the site of the Great Stone Barn – 50 feet wide, four stories tall and almost 200 feet long. Guy Davenport admired Shaker aesthetics and was fond of citing Mother Ann Lee’s dictum that “every force evolves a form” (the title of his 1987 essay collection). He noted that it “sounds like Heraclitus or Darwin,” and went on to say:

“A work of art is a form that articulates forces, making them intelligible.”

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