Tree of Life Liner Notes
Tree of Life - Liner Notes

The dissenting Protestant sect formally known as the United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing, but commonly called the Shakers, sprouted in England, but took root in the soil of the New World. From 1774, when founder Ann Lee and her tiny band of followers settled near Watervliet, outside Albany, New York, through the first seven decades of the 19th century, the Shaker movement flourished in the northeast and spread as far west as Kentucky and Ohio. A small band of Believers still lives, committed to the Shaker life, at Sabbathday Lake, Maine.

Shaker communities withdrew themselves from the World, holding all property in common, living in strict celibacy, with sisters and brethren sharing leadership and responsibilities equally. The Believers strove to put their "hands to work and hearts to God," and their ideal was simplicity. Their self-sufficient farms broadened into productive and often prosperous small industries -- many of the Shakers proved to be good businesspeople, and their seeds, furniture and other domestic products were highly prized by 19th century consumers. In the era after the Civil War, many factors contributed to the Shaker movement's decline, and the Society never again reached its ante-bellum peak. Their music, however, is a lasting testament to their faith.

Singing was an essential element of the Believers' worship. In fact (our efforts on this recording notwithstanding), for the first century or so, the Shakers rejected part-singing and instrumental accompaniment. They wanted no sophistications which might exclude ordinary members from full participation in the service.

When the Shakers created their repertory, they did not adopt the traditional hymns of other Protestant denominations, finding those texts filled with erroneous doctrine. Instead, the Shakers made new songs of their own, which stated their own beliefs and feelings. For melodies they turned to the rich treasury of Anglo-American folk song. These tunes were well-known, easily taught and ideal for uniting the congregation in worship.

Though their melodies derived from well-known ballad and dance tunes, the Shakers freely combined different tunes into new ones, often in states of divine inspiration. In dreams, visions and trances, a Believer would hear music or serve as an "instrument" for "gift" songs from heavenly spirits, including Mother Ann herself.

The Shakers' dancing during worship, which began as the spontaneous expression of spiritual transport, was regularized by community leaders beginning in the 1790's, and throughout the next hundred years, old and new dances and marches, each with their special songs, were a vital part of religious services. As the Shakers labored in the field or workshop to reap material sustenance, so in worship, they earnestly took part in the "laboring exercises," to prepare themselves to receive spiritual gifts.

I Will Walk WIth My Children was learned at Enfield, New Hampshire; it was received as a gift from the spirit of Father Joseph Meacham, the first American-born Shaker leader. Welcome Blessed Gospel Kindred also comes from Enfield, and was from a manuscript compiled by Sister Rosetta Cumings in 1869.

Living Souls Let's Be Marching, was a popular "laboring" song, that originated in 1853 and was sung for the next century. Good Believer's Life comes from Harvard, Massachusetts, one of the most musically important of all early Shaker communities; this version comes from A Sacred Repository of Anthems and Hymns, compiled by Elder Henry A. Blinn of Canterbury.

I Want To Gather Down appears in a notebook from Mt Lebanon, N.Y., dating from about 1866, has all the characteristics of a marching exercise. The Earthquake was composed by Elder Daniel Mosely, born in 1760 and and converted by Mother Ann herself, who was a Shaker missionary to Ohio. The shocks of the New Madrid earthquake in 1811 at Union Village, Ohio inspired him to compose this hymn, whose words include "God will shake this old creation,/Rocks and mountains overturn,/Fill the world with consternation,/Till the way of truth they learn."

The children at Alfred, Maine, were taught that Sister Paulina Springer learned Mother Has Come With Her Beautiful Song from a little bird; a notebook dates it February, 1877. The story is told that on her deathbed, the 92-year-old Paulina said, "I'm not going to be here much longer. There's two angels standing over by the cupboard door, waiting for me." John Robe was born on St. Croix in 1818 and was probably the "Molatto man" who joined the Shakers at Mt. Lebanon, N.Y. at the age of 21; he received Love Oh Love in 1846. He eventually advanced to the status of a fully convenanted member of the Society, but in the next year, 1871, he withdrew, only to reappear a fe w months later at Watervliet. His apostasy was apparently not forgiven; his name is nowhere in the society's death lists.

Voyage to Canaan has the melody of a secular song, You Gentlemen of England; Richard McNemar, a converted Presbyterian minister, used it for a text he wrote and published in 1813 in the first Shaker hymnal, Millenial Praises. Bow Down O Zion is a classic example of a gift song: it was received by Elder Otis Sawyer of Sabbathday Lake, Maine, from the spirit of Betsey Bates, daughter of Elder Issachar, one of the great missionary leaders and composers of the early 19th century Shaker movement.

The Humble Heart dates from about 1820, from Harvard. Eunice Wyeth's six verses are a hymn to the Shaker ideal of simplicity, and uses their well-loved image of the vineyard as a metaphor for the nurturing of modest yet unswerving faith: "Of all the trees among the wood/I've chose one little vine/The meek and low are nigh to me/The humble heart is mine." /I'm On My Way To Zion is a joyful march, whose first line is "I'm On My Way To Zion, that peaceful happy mansion..."

Tree Of Life also comes to us from Elder Otis Sawyer of Sabbathday Lake, one of many "little chants which the Angels and good spirits kindly breathed through his imperfect organs of vocal music." Its words include: "Where streams of living waters flow,/Where Saints in garments white as snow/Rejoice in full redemption/'Tis here the tree of life is seen,/And here in verdure ever green/Elysian fields in beauty gleam,/Here in God's new creation."

Polly Lawrence received The Rolling Deep in 1826, the year she went to serve as female lead at the new community at Sodus, N.Y. Her ministry was brief -- she died that year, but was remembered for her beautiful singing. Faithful Soldiers Travel On may also be from as early as 1826, and features sections, typical of some Shaker spirituals, of syllables only: "Follow Mother in the way/Lo rel lo lo lo rel lo/Little children skip and play/Lo rel lo lo lo lo." Please note the songs we called The Rolling Deep and Faithful Soldiers Travel On are really Shaker Marches #52 and #7.

Love is Little comes from South Union, Kentucky, ca. 1834; its words are "Love is little, love is low/Love will make my spirit grow/Grow in peace, grow in light/Love will do the thing that's right," expressing in its mild simplicity the Shakers' abiding belief in humble faith and fellowship, rejecting the excessively charismatic preaching and apocalyptic prophesizing common in that age of religious reform and zealotry.

The Holy Order was one of the earliest "laboring manners," a formal dance received by revelation of God by Father Joseph Meacham in 1787 or 1788, which was a part of Shaker worship for a century, and was known throughout the settlements. This Holy Order Tune was transcribed at Mt Lebanon, N.Y. from the singing of Betty Babbet in 1826, who was paying a visit from Harvard, where she had been called to the ministry the year before. How Beautiful O Zion and the untitled March are also examples of the music to which the Shakers danced in religious observance. Pleae note How Beautiful O Zion is really called Shaker March #59.

Pleasant Walk and F.M's March are laboring tunes both dating from around 1858; the melody of Star of Purity was composed in 1868 at Union Village by Susannie M. Brady. The words were by Ezra T. Leggeth, whose worldly experience prior to joining the Shakers qualified him to go to Washington in 1870 to plead for tax adjustments for the Society. He wrote of our nation's capital: "Washington is a queer place, you can buy everything you wish here with money, except honesty and piety...we feel very much like a pair of eels waiting to be skinned alive."

The source of most of our information about the Shakers and their music is The Shaker Spiritual by Daniel W. Patterson, Professor of English and former head of the Curriculum in Folklore at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His generous assistance with, and interest in, Tree of Life and its companion album, Simple Gifts, cannot be too warmly acknowledged.


Andrews, Edward Deming, The Gift to Be Simple, Dover Publications, New York, N.Y., 1962.

Early Shaker Spirituals, (recording) The United Society of Shakers, Sabbathday Lake, Maine; notes by Daniel W. Patterson; Rounder Records 0078, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1976.

Music of the Shakers (recording), Folkways Records FH 5378, 1976.

O, Hear Their Music Ring, (recording) Museum of Lower Shaker Village, Enfield, N.H., 1989.

Patterson, Daniel W., The Shaker Spiritual, Princeton University Press, Princeton, N.J., 1979.

_______, Singing in the Valley, published privately for the Annual Meeting of The Friends of the Shakers, Sabbathday Lake, Maine, 1978.

The Shaker Gift of Song (recording), Musica Antiqua, Pleasant Hill, Kentucky, 1980.

Sturm, Ann Black, ed., The Shaker Gift of Song, Berea College Press, 1981.

Von Kolken, Diana, ed., The Shaker Messenger, a quarterly journal, Holland, Michigan.

Return to Tree of Life