The Stewards Of A Disappearing Faith — And 10,000 Songs The religious sect known as Shakers, responsible for the song "Simple Gifts" and thousands of others, is almost gone — and a non-Shaker is trying to keep the group's musical history alive.
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The Stewards Of A Disappearing Faith — And 10,000 Songs

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The Stewards Of A Disappearing Faith — And 10,000 Songs

The Stewards Of A Disappearing Faith — And 10,000 Songs

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

You've probably heard this melody.

(SOUNDBITE OF AARON COPLAND SONG, "APPALACHIAN SPRING")

SIMON: Of course, this is from Aaron Copland's "Appalachian Spring" composed in the 1940s, but the tune dates back to the 1840s. It's a song called "Simple Gifts" and it was written by the Shakers, a Christian sect which has all but disappeared. The Shakers wrote thousands of songs, and now one musician is making it his mission to try to revive them. From Maine Public Radio, Susan Sharon reports.

SUSAN SHARON, BYLINE: Six thousand Shakers once practiced their faith in farming communities from Maine to Kentucky. They gave up worldly possessions, marriage and sex. Instead, they devoted themselves to prayer and to work. The religion has not been sustainable. There are just three followers left - two elderly women and one middle-aged man who live at the Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village in New Gloucester, Maine. And stored away in their village library is a collection of 10,000 handwritten Shaker songs, including "Simple Gifts."

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) 'Tis a gift to be simple, 'tis a gift to be free, 'tis a gift to come down where we ought to be...

AARON HADD: We believe that everything we have is a gift, a gift from God.

SHARON: Brother Arnold Hadd is the youngest Shaker. He's in his late 50s. He oversees their small farm where they raise cows and sheep and grow vegetables and herbs.

HADD: And of all the gifts that we have had, the one that has remained constant since 1747 when we began to today is music. And so the gift of song is something that's imperative. It tells our history. It tells our theology. It tells about our daily living.

SHARON: Shakers lived a communal lifestyle. Everyone was encouraged to write songs. Singing united them in worship. In the past, their villages would arrange to sing the same song at the same time of day as a way to feel connected across geography. But some songs, like "Bright Angels Descend," haven't been sung in more than a century.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Bright angels descend, I feel their presence, I know they're here...

CHRIS MOORE: "Bright Angels Descend" is another one that I found in a manuscript that basically nobody in the world is singing today. So that's exciting for us in the group.

SHARON: Chris Moore is not a Shaker. He's a musician from Yarmouth, Maine. He started coming to Sabbathday Lake as a teenager and became entranced with Shaker themes of faith, humility and the beauty of nature.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'LL SPEND AND BE SPENT")

MILDRED BARKER: (Singing) I'll spend and be spent in the cause of my God. My heart...

SHARON: He watched as community members, like Sister Mildred Barker, stood and sang in their signature style - acapella with no harmonizing and no instruments. She recorded this song before she died.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'LL SPEND AND BE SPENT")

BARKER: (Singing) God, he is able the winds to control.

MOORE: At the time, you know, as a young person, I didn't have any idea what I was being given the gift to witness. But now it's become apparent to me how lucky I really was to be able to be in the room while that was happening.

SHARON: Now that there are only three Shakers left, Moore is determined not to let their songs vanish. He started a singing group dedicated to Shaker music. The group has performed in front of a live audience at the Shakers' meeting house.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Oh, give me a little love, little love, little love. Give me a little love, Lord...

SHARON: Moore hopes that Shaker songs can be part of a revival of 19th century folk music, which would also preserve a chapter in American cultural history after the last Shaker is gone. For NPR News, I'm Susan Sharon.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Give me a little love, Lord. And all I would ask of you, brethren and sisters, is just a little love more.

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