For the first time this choir season, the CHC Choristers will join the Parish Choir to sing for the 10:30 a.m. service this Sunday, September 23.
The choirs will sing a John Rutter setting of “Lord of the Dance,” the tune for which many worshipers will recognize as the “Shaker Hymn” or “Shaker melody.” It is usually associated with the text “'Tis the gift to be simple.”
The tune was written in the early 19th Century by Joseph Brackett (1797-1882), an American songwriter, author and elder in the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, otherwise known as the “Shakers.”
This song gained popularity when famed American composer Aaron Copland (1900-1990) included it in his score of Martha Graham’s ballet, Appalachian Spring. Copland also later arranged it in his own set of American songs for voice and piano.
Elder Joseph also wrote the text with which we most often associate this tune:
'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 gained,
To bow and to bend we shan't be ashamed,
To turn, turn will be our delight,
Till by turning, turning we come 'round right.
The origin of the text “Lord of the Dance,” however is much more contemporary.
Music publishers Stainer & Bell in England get so many questions about their copyrighted text for this tune, the company webstite has an entire page on the subject.
English poet, songwriter and folk musician Sidney Carter wrote “Lord of the Dance” in 1963. He borrowed the American Shaker tune for his text, which is sung widely in anthem and hymn versions worldwide.
Carter’s text is like the traditional English carol “Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day” in that the Gospel story is told in first-person voice by Jesus himself, with the lyrics comparing Jesus’ life and mission to a dance.
When writing this text, Carter says he was inspired by Jesus’ life and also by a small statue on his desk of the Hindu god Shiva in his dancing pose. The dancing nature of Jesus’ life was also intended to honor the Shakers’ dancing tradition.
Carter confesses that he did not think church folks would like the imagery at all, thinking it was a bit far-fetched - perhaps heretical - and not Christian enough. But the text struck a chord (pun intended) with Christians and became popular and beloved.
Today there are many inaccurate, misconstrued associations with both the text and the tune.
The “Lord of the Dance” really is Jesus Christ and not Irish dancer Michael Flatley of Riverdance fame , who has toured internationally.
Likewise, the tune is not Celtic but authentically American.
Associate musician Dr. Koziel and I are delighted for our Choristers to join the Parish Choir for this anthem, as the significant text is a marvelous teaching tool for children about the life of Jesus on earth.
I danced in the morning when the world was begun,
And I danced in the moon and the stars and the sun,
And I came down from heaven and I danced on the earth,
At Bethlehem I had my birth.
I danced for the scribe and the pharisee,
But they would not dance and they wouldn’t follow me.
I danced for the fishermen, for James and John –
They came with me and the Dance went on.
I danced on the Sabbath and I cured the lame;
The holy people said it was a shame.
They whipped and they stripped and they hung me high,
And they left me there on a cross to die.
I danced on a Friday when the sky turned black –
It’s hard to dance with the devil on your back.
They buried my body and they thought I’d gone,
But I am the Dance, and I still go on.
They cut me down and I leapt up high;
I am the life that’ll never, never die;
I’ll live in you if you’ll live in me –
I am the Lord of the Dance, said he.
Dance, then, wherever you may be,
I am the Lord of the Dance, said he,
And I’ll lead you all, wherever you may be,
And I’ll lead you all in the Dance, said he.
(Copyright 1963, Stainer & Bell Ltd., London, England)
Read more about the text “Lord of the Dance” here.