Creative Team Building and Leadership Resources - In our Elements

‘Tis the Gift to be a Simple Man

Saturday, December 4th, 2010

This week’s Free Ride* muses on the lyrics of Simple Gifts, a song composed in 1848 by Elder Joseph Bracket of the Shaker community. This religious denomination, officially named the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Coming, now has only three remaining members left in the US, largely because of their rejection of sexual relations. Not a great basis for attracting new members or bringing in the next generation. They apparently invested their sexual energy into worship experiences back in the day; the name Shakers comes from their ecstatic movement in worship services. They may not have believed in sex, but they did believe in dancing, and Elder Bracket composed Simple Gifts as a dance song. As such, the tune is better known with its 1960s set of lyrics, Lord of the Dance. The song first gained fame, though, when Aaron Copeland used it for his Appalachian Suite composition in 1944. The melody is beautiful, and Elder Bracket’s lyrics are equally compelling in their 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
We will be in the valley of love and delight

This is one of the most requested songs that my wife Kim and I are asked to play (she plays hammer dulcimer and I back her on guitar). A couple of years ago, we created a new arrangement, coupling the melody of Simple Gifts with the background guitar riff from the classic rock song Simple Man by Lynyrd Skynyrd. I love it when those ideas actually work. I mention Simple Man because today is Gary Rossington’s 60th birthday. Rossington, the sole remaining survivor of the original Skynyrd band, co-wrote the song with Ronnie Van Zant and played the guitar riff. Simple Man is one of several examples of the complicated world view of these southern rock icons. While the group is often associated with conservative power politics, and while some of their songs and certainly some of their lifestyles illustrate excess and indulgence (Smell that Smell comes to mind), Simple Man’s lyrics speak to the other end of the ideological spectrum, hearkening to the more progressive, Thoreau-inspired notion of living simply in its rejection of greed and materialism. Other progressive-leaning songs from Skynyrd include Things Going On (a blues that sounds like it could have been written by left-wing peaceniks and environmentalists) and Saturday Night Special (a critique of gun violence; the song advocates throwing all handguns into the sea). But to reassure their core, Rossington and other members of the latest version of Skynyrd recently came out with an album titled God and Guns, and they enjoy hanging out with Sean Hannity, regurgitating right-wing talking points, all for the cause of freedom. The life histories of  Rossington and his Skynyrd mates would lead you to conclude, though, that they are anything but free. And their songs over the years would lead you to conclude that their world views are anything but simple, given the complicated and contradictory values expressed in the lyrics. Maybe on his birthday, Gary Rossington should dance with the Shakers and hope for a realization of their vision of a simple man’s life:

When true simplicity is gained
To bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed
To turn, turn will be our delight
‘Til by turning, turning we come round right.

May that be our experience during this Advent season as we approach Christmas and wait to celebrate the birth of the original simple man. May we shake off all the pressures of consumerism and dance a jig with those Believers in Christ’s Second Coming. While we’re waiting, we can listen to some good covers of the song (click on each link to listen):

Judy Collins’ classic version from 1963
Jewel’s more contemporary version
Allison Krauss and Yo Yo Ma’s version
Aaron Copeland’s Appalachian Spring version


*Free Ride is a Saturday blog that takes a different song each week and muses on the lyrics of freedom. If you have a favorite “freedom” song (it could be any song that has the word free or freedom in it), feel free to suggest it in the comment box below. As always, your feedback and comments are welcome.

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