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Balls of Simplicity - My experiences with Shakerism

Balls of Simplicity

“The shiny balls of simplicity will set you free”, a phrase from a Shaker “Vision” or “Gift” song from the 1830’s – and also the name of a composition of mine from the first eponymous recording by my band “Shakers n’ Bakers” dedicated both to the radical vision of the Shakers as well as the mystical genius of composer Morton Feldman.

My interest in the Shakers (the religious group otherwise known as the “United society of Believers in Christ’s Second Coming”) comes from pretty secular sources – I am a listener and fan of the music of composer John Adams, and my favorite piece of his is “Shaker Loops”. This composition is much more indebted to early California minimalism and Adams’ interest in tape loops than to Mother Ann Lee and her hearty band of followers that arrived in New York Harbor from their persecution in Manchester, England in 1774, but Adams’ title for the piece is evocative and derives from his childhood growing up in New Hampshire near one of the more beautifully preserved Shaker sites at Canterbury Village. Still, the title of the piece and its’ mystical music led me to wonder about the musical life of the Shakers.

If I have one redeeming personal quality, it is that I will follow the thread of curiosity doggedly – in this case that thread of curiosity led me to the Grand Army Plaza branch of the Brooklyn public library – the same branch where a young Aaron Copland would spend afternoons, walking over from his family’s house on Dean Street to study the great collection of classical scores there. I have also spent many happy hours there with their music collections and went to see what they might have in the area of Shaker music – what I found startled me.

If one knows anything about Shaker music it’s probably through knowing one song in particular – “Simple Gifts”. This songs has become a part of a vision of 19th century Americana, and has also fixed the Shakers place in that vision as a group of homespun old ladies, who made chairs and sang heart-warming themes reinforcing their love of family, old-fashioned values and G_D. What I found at the library that day quickly disabused me of that notion, and revealed a musical and spiritual world that absorbed much of my energy and imagination for quite a while.

The Shakers, or “Shaking Quakers” were a radical off-shoot of the more mainstream, but still revolutionary Quaker sect that can be traced to one powerful woman – Mother Ann Lee. Ann Lee lived in Manchester in the 1700’s and experienced many of the hardships of that early-industrial revolution capital, plus her own personal tragedy of 6 miscarriages and an abusive husband. Her reaction to this trauma was a spiritual revelation that placed the root of all evil and suffering on earth to carnal sin. She was outspoken in her belief, and even was known to storm the pulpit during Quaker services to express her new idea that sex was the source of all evil, and a celibate life was the only true pathway to Godliness here on earth. This was of course met with resistance among the Quakers and others, and Lee and her small band of followers (including her former husband) decided to emigrate to the Colonies in order to escape persecution and incarceration.

Landing in New York Harbor, the group lived in the city for a year to work and save money, which they then invested in a swampy piece of land located adjacent to the site of the present-day Albany airport where they began a community of Shaker believers taking Mother Ann Lee’s beliefs as their central tenets, along with a radical celibate, communal lifestyle. They didn’t recruit new members aggressively the way many other Utopian Christian communities formed around the same time did and viewed their communities as “heaven on earth” – an example of how people could live apart from carnal desire and the evils it produced. At the same time, they developed a lifestyle that was socially progressive with women and free people of color ascending to prominent social/political positions a century before other communities in America even considered this kind of equity. They developed an economic self-sufficiency and thrived on an agrarian basis, but developed many industries from selling seed packages to chairs and other crafts that made their communities financially prosperous, embracing and creating new technologies along the way such as the circular saw, flat broom and the clothes pin.

Along with that, the Shakers imbued each daily act with a spiritual significance, from sweeping the floor to the creation of an incredible legacy of art and song. One estimate puts the number of Shaker songs created during the 100 or so years of the community’s height of creativity at about ten thousand songs. There are several categories of song, and song was a central part of worship as well as daily life. Some of the song looks like what you might think of as typical 19th century Protestant hymnody, some of it is derived from traditional Anglican folksong practice from the period and other sources. But it is one body of music that I discovered in the Brooklyn Public Library that day that caught my attention – the “Gift Songs”.

“Gift”, or “Vision” songs were received in states of inspiration by young women of the Shaker sect during a particularly fertile period from 1837-1850. At this time, the community was struggling with how to move forward as Mother Ann Lee had been gone for 30 years or so, but the promised second coming of Christ had not yet happened. There was a feeling of lack of direct connection to the divine which was the powerful engine that fueled the ecstatic worship of the Shakers, until young girls began to receive messages in the form of songs and works of art from Mother Ann. This miracle continued for quite a few years, re-energizing the Shaker faith and it’s ecstatic mystical basis. The songs were attributed directly to the invention of Mother Ann, along with a number of other sources that range wildly from Christopher Columbus to “Moon” people.

On a musical level, the songs I saw in the library that day looked on paper more like Ornette Coleman tunes than Protestant hymns – they had mixed meters, odd phrase lengths, shifting modalities and perhaps most striking – they were not in English, but often in languages of divine inspiration that seemed to be a mix of Pig-Latin and some kind of made-up Native American language from a bad old movie. Phrases like “Hack-a-ling, shack a ling” (also the title of another composition of mine) seemed to be hilarious, bizarre and incredibly politically incorrect, and yet completely charming and musical in their settings. As I browsed through these amazing little compositions, I immediately began to imagine a band that would perform this music. I think my first thoughts were of something like Ornette Coleman during the fantastic, but lesser known “Prime Time” period, with a good dose of Albert Ayler’s spiritual expression as well – in fact, it wasn’t long before I realized that Albert himself grew up in Shaker Heights, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland Ohio and the former site of a Shaker settlement.

The band (including Mary LaRose and Miles Griffith on vocals, Jamie Saft on keyboards, Chris Lightcap on bass and Allison Miller on drums) is well documented on our 3 recordings and many performances you can see on youtube, as well as in a short documentary made in connection with our participation in the World Festival of Sacred Music in Los Angeles (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6jGvQg9fz7I). The band is LOUD – the loudest I have ever led, or played with. I love the volume of it, it resonates with the message of the music. I wear a dress when we perform. Saft plays on a Baldwin electric harpsichord that I flew to Nashville to purchase from an Ebay seller who told me he “got it from the Colonel” (Elvis’ harpsichord) and then drove back to NYC 20 hrs straight with my nephew Stephen riding shotgun.

In addition to traditional venues on the jazz scene, we performed at Shaker historical sites, at times side by side with traditional Shaker performance groups which led to some delightful and humorous moments. At the original Shaker settlement near Albany, Watervliet Shaker Village, we blasted the Vision songs at full volume, raising the rafters and conjuring the spirit of Mother Ann’s invective against carnal sin. We may have confused some of their audience, but I never saw any inconsistency between our ecstatic musical freedom and the core message of the Shaker faith. I often was hawking tins of Shaker tea at the shows along with our merch, the proceeds going to the living community of 4 remaining Shakers in Sabbathday Lake Maine. As part of the promotions campaign for our “YFZ-Yearning for Zion” CD, I sent packages of Shaker tea to radio DJ’s, packaged in plain zip-lock baggies that caused them some confusion.

I had the opportunity to visit and worship with the living community of Shakers only once – They open their doors to the public one day a year, and it happened to be a day when I was up in Maine, performing at a destination wedding with a popular NYC “club date” band. I drove to the gig with one of the singers, Shawana Kemp and explained that if she wanted to ride with me for the Saturday night gig, there would be a stop on the way home the next day – I asked if she had ever heard of the Shakers, and she responded “Don’t they have good sandwiches??” – I was confused. On the Sunday morning after the gig, I met Shawanna at the car; she came out of her hotel room wearing her Sunday best dress, topped off with a seriously orange hat, the kind of crown you might see at any NYC Baptist church on Sunday morning ; she was ready to meet the Shakers.

We arrived at the Sabbathday Lake village and approached the meetinghouse where the public worship service was about to begin. I entered by the Men’s door, and Shawanna via the Women’s entrance. The four Shakers were silent in prayer as I seated myself among the small gathering of the “World’s people” – but as Shawanna entered in her Sunday finest, there was almost an audible collective inhale among the congregation – not only because of her striking attire, but to be honest this might have been the first time an African American woman had been present in worship since the period of the 19th century when free African Americans had a visible, and important role in Shaker communities. The leader of the Shaker group, Eldress Francis, raised her eyes from her silent contemplation, and smiled broadly.

After the service the public was invited for a reception with the living Shakers. I was thrilled to be in the presence of these dedicated spiritual warriors and couldn’t wait to meet them – as we pressed forward Eldress Francis extended her hand first towards Shawanna, and said warmly, “Would you care for a sandwich??”.

There are too many of these odd tales about the “Shakers n’ Bakers” to recount here. I asked the living Shakers if they might be interested in hosting a concert event with my band of NYC free-jazzers playing Shaker sacred music that hadn’t been heard in over 100 years. They responded that while they recognized my intentions as sincere, they weren’t interested – yeah, I get that.

My intentions with this band were always straightforward and honest – the sacred music of the Shakers, and particularly the Vision songs, resonated with me deeply. Perhaps it has something to do with my background as a Religious Studies major at Oberlin where I wrote my senior thesis on the subject of Glossalalia, or speaking in tongues (something Albert Ayler did as well). I speaks to the kind of direct experience of something other than worldly experience that fuels much of own music-making and improvisation. And when I visited the New Lebanon Shaker settlement in upstate NY, center of the Shaker world for quite a long time, I was struck by a kind of magnetic energy in the air as the overcast sky that afternoon wrapped around me and let me know that the energy of Mother Ann Lee was still swirling around that site.

Incidentaly, I did finally meet the composer John Adams at a talk some years after I had started this group germinated by my interest in his piece “Shaker Loops”. When I introduced myself to him he responded, “You’re the person with the band “Shakers n’ Bakers” aren’t you?”. I was shocked he had heard of the group, and said yes. Then Adams kind of leaned back, and after a moment said “You’re not doing the whole celibacy thing, are you?”.


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