Day 6

The race is on to preserve the rich musical tradition of The Shakers

This week, one of the last remaining members of the religious community known as the Shakers passed away in Maine. At its peak, the religious group — which championed ideas of gender equality, pacifism and celibacy — included nearly 6,000 followers. Now, there are only two. Musician Chris Moore is fighting to keep their rich musical tradition from disappearing.
Chris Moore is doing his part to preserve the Shakers' musical traditions. (Chris Moore / United Society of Shakers)

At their peak, there were nearly 6,000 Shakers living communally in the United States. But this week, one of the religious group's last remaining members passed away — leaving just two Shakers to continue their traditions.

The Shakers, a radical Protestant group, aren't giving up hope of future converts. But in the meantime, local musician Chris Moore is doing his part to help preserve the Shakers' rich repertoire of folk songs.

Moore spent time among the Shakers as a teenager and has made it his mission to transcribe the Shakers' songs and teach them to his students at 317 Main Community Music Centre in Yarmouth, Me.

The Shakers can be credited for preserving and writing more original [sacred] music during the 19th century ... than really all the other religious sects combined.- Chris Moore

It's no small task. Over the centuries, the Shakers developed a canon of at least 10,000 songs, including some of the earliest examples of American folk music.

"The Shakers can be credited for preserving and writing more original music during the 19th century, in terms of sacred music, than really all the other religious sects combined, I think, in the country," Moore tells Day 6 host Brent Bambury.

He estimates that if you include all of the songs that weren't written down in manuscripts, the Shakers probably wrote upwards of 15,000 to 20,000 songs.

"That's kind of astounding."


A rich history

Sometimes referred to as the "Shaking Quakers," the Shakers were a radical Protestant group that came to the United States from England in the 1700s. They lived communally, embracing a life of celibacy and pacifism.

Traditionally-notated sheet music for the famous Shaker song "Simple Gifts." (United Society of Shakers)

They were also great innovators, credited with the invention of the wooden clothespin and the circular saw.

Music played a central role in the Shakers' religious practice. Members were encouraged to improvise and write their own melodies, and burst into spontaneous song during worship services.

Songs that proved popular were written down in the Shakers' unique musical notation and shared orally between communities.

One such tune, "Simple Gifts," endures today as a popular American folk song.

Moore remembers spending time at those Shaker worship services in his youth.

"I remember specifically Sister Mildred Barker, a short elderly woman in Shaker dress," he recalls. "[She] started singing a song, without a book or any advance notice of it, and then the people who knew it in the room started singing along. That made a big impression on me."

"Simple Gifts" as adapted by musician Chris Moore:



The original Shaker version of the song, "Tis a Gift to be Simple":


Preserving the Shakers' folk hymns

Moore feels a strong personal connection to Shaker culture. As a teenager, his family often visited Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village in New Gloucester, Me.

But he also believes the Shakers' songs hold immense historic significance in the history of American folk music.

"The Shakers really drew from the traditional music and other music of their time, so you get to hear a lot of things that might imply fife or fiddle tunes of the 19th century in many of the wordless tunes that they wrote."

The Shakers really drew from the traditional music and other music of their time.- Chris Moore

That makes their history valuable to secular Americans, Moore says.

"Those of us in the world who are thinking 'well, maybe there will be a transition where someday there won't be any more Shakers' … the friends of the Shakers might carry on some of this music, and some of their beliefs and some of the ways they went around looking at the world — which I think many of us in the secular world can really learn a lot from."

Still, Moore is not ruling out a religious comeback for the Shakers.

"As far as the Shakers are concerned, a renaissance in membership could just be right around the corner."


Listen to another traditional Shaker tune, as performed by Sister Mildred Barker of the Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village: