‘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.
—Elder Joseph Brackett, Simple Gifts (1848)
Listen to a performance of Simple Gifts here in the orchestral setting found in Aaron Copland’s Old American Songs (1950), the performance is by Marilyn Horne. Copland also used the song as the basis for the movement “Calm and Flowing” in Appalachian Springs (1945).
Recently I have been listening to the Sony Classics “Copland Collection” which surveys Copland’s major orchestral works in chronological order–roughly nine hours of recordings, many of them conducted by Copland himself. The recordings are marvelous, and listening to them beginning to end gives a different understanding of Copland and his genius as a composer. His early work is experimental, exciting, but also frequently dark and dissonant. It undergoes a remarkable transformation in the years of the Roosevelt and Truman presidencies. Copland’s best works come from this period. They are powerful, at times fiercely patriotic expressions of American sentiment, filled with optimism, commitment and passion. This man was, I believe, the greatest composer America produced in the last century, and his work spoke to the country in a manner that few composers in the classical tradition have ever managed.
Copland, a native of Brooklyn, sees the beauty in simplicity, in the folk tradition, and in the unassuming and quiet lives of the nation’s heartland. He also portrays the vigor and energy of the great industrial cities, and he had a special affection for the rhythmic music of Latin America. (In the chronology, El Salón México of 1933 seems the break-through piece in which a vibrant celebration of life supplants darkness and doubt). Copland holds up this vibrant, and at times chaotic mosaic of cultures and traditions as a virtue in the face of the totalitarian onslaught. It is his answer to the fascist mythmaking of the thirties which pushed idea of racial supremacy, national identity and a cultural and social monolith.
In all of this, a central position is held by the quiet simplicity of the Shaker tradition. Few of Copland’s works manage this ideal of quiet simplicity quite as well as Simple Gifts, and the Marilyn Horne performance is one of the best.
America launches the second phase of the presidential campaign season this week, as the Democrats gather in Denver. America is being presented with two different visions of its essence and how it can evolve in the coming decades. The low-road campaigners will instinctively, but falsely, reject the legitimacy of the opposing vision. It is a good time to take stock of common roots and ideals before the clash and pettiness of the final stretch of campaigning takes hold. Simple Gifts reminds us of the way: it beckons to a dance that stands as a symbol for life and social interaction; it urges us to value the gifts we have, to cherish them and use them wisely, but with a heart filled with love and generosity. It is an American ideal which is too quickly forgotten in the pettiness and venality of election campaigns.