arts / Christianity / Church / songs / songwriting / St Paul's

Lord of the Dance – Simple Gifts



Sydney Carter‘s Lord of the Dance seems to be following me around. I knew Sydney well, from the time he came to the Singers’ Club to record MacColl and his acolytes for the BBC on a green EMI portable reel-to-reel recorder. Later, he recorded my skiffle group with the same machine, sitting in the front row at Cecil Sharp House.He and I were judges in a Christian Aid song contest. I was not then a Christian at that time, though when I was baptised and confirmed on May 1, 1983, he came to the ceremony at All Souls Church, Langham Place, London W1.

KD-Rev Patrick Appleyard-SteveSparkes-Sydney Carter

KD, Sydney Carter et al judging Christian Aid contest.

KD, Sydney Carter et al judging Christian Aid contest.

Shelter benefit gig pgm - 1972In 1972, I organised a charity concert in aid of Shelter at Southwark Cathedral (a gig arranged by Caroline Needham) which concluded by the entire audience/congregation dancing round to the tune of Sydney’s song.

I assembled a scratch band for the event which included (among others) Jenny Beeching, the Broken Consort, Carole Pegg, and Richard Thompson.

Sandy Denny promised to come, but actually she never made the gig.

"Lord of the Dance" band in rehearsal, 1972

“Lord of the Dance” band in rehearsal, 1972

We preceded the song with a re-enactment of the apochryphal story of Jesus dancing with his disciples, from The Axts John, chapters 94 to 97:

… he assembled us all and said, ‘Before I am delivered to them, let us sing a hymn to the Father …. So he told us to form a circle, holding one another’s hands, and himself stood in the middle and said, ‘Answer Amen to me.’ So he began to sing a hymn and to say,

Glory be to thee, Father,

And we circled round him and answered him, “Amen”

Glory be to thee, Logos:

Glory be to thee, Grace. -Amen

Glory be to thee, Spirit:

Glory be to thee, Holy One:

Glory be to thy Glory. -Amen

We praise thee, Father:

We thank thee, Light:

In whom darkness dwelleth not. -Amen

And why we give thanks, I tell you:

I will be saved, and I will save. -Amen

I will be loosed, and I will loose. -Amen

I will be wounded, and I will wound. -Amen

I will be born, and I will bear. -Amen

I will eat, and I will be eaten. -Amen

I will hear, and I will be heard. -Amen

I will be thought, Being wholly thought.-Amen

I will be washed, and I will wash. -Amen

Grace dances.

I will pipe, Dance, all of you. – Amen.

I will mourn, Beat you all your breasts -Amen.

(The) one Ogdoad sings praises with us. -Amen

The twelfth number dances on high. -Amen

To the All it belongs to dance in the height (?) -Amen.

He who does not dance does not know what happens. -Amen.

I will flee, and I will remain. -Amen

I will adorn, and I will be adorned. -Amen

I will be united, and I will unite. -Amen

I have no houses, and I have houses. -Amen

I have no place, and I have places. -Amen

I have no temple, and I have temples. -Amen

I am a lamp to you (sing.), who see me. -Amen

I am mirror to you who know me. -Amen

I am a door to you (who) knock on me. -Amen

I am way to you (the) traveler. -Amen

Now if you follow my dance,

see yourself in me who am speaking,

and when you have seen what I do, keep silent about my mysteries.

You who dance, consider what I do, for yours is

this passion of man which I am to suffer.

For you could by no means have understood what you suffer unless to you as Logos I had been sent by the Father.

You who saw what I do saw (me) as suffering, and seeing it you did not stay but where wholly moved.

Being moved toward wisdom you have me as a support; rest in me.

Who I am, you shall know when I go forth.

What I now am seem to be, that I am not; what I am you shall see when you come.

If you knew how to suffer you would be able not to suffer.

Learn how to suffer and you shall be able to not suffer.

What you do not know I myself will teach you.

I am your God, not (the God) of the traitor.

I will that holy souls be made in harmony with me.

Understand the word of wisdom!

Say again to me,

Glory be to thee, Father,

Glory be to thee, Logos,

Glory be to thee, Spirit, -Amen

As for me, if you would understand what I was: by the Logos I made a jest of everything and was not made a jest at all. I exulted: but you do not understand the whole,

And when you have understood it, say, Glory be to thee, Father. -Amen

Simple Gifts was written by Joseph Brackett (1797–1882) in 1848. Brackett, a lifelong resident of Maine, first joined the Shakers at Gorham, Maine, when his father’s farm helped to form the nucleus of a new Shaker settlement.The song was virtually unknown outside the Shakers until its tune was included in Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring in 1944.


‘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.

In using (a slightly modified version of) the tune for his song, Sydney was perhaps being more appropriate than even he knew, for to the Shakers it was a dance song (as can be seen from one of the prints in the Youtube recording, which I have extracted below).

Shakers dancing

The reference to “turning” in the last two lines of the chorus may refer to repentance (which means, literally, turning away from – so dwelling on your sins is itself a cardinal sing), it seems clear from the context it refers to a movement of the dance, like a do-si-do.

When we concluded our service at St Paul’s, Manningham, on Sunday, Alistair Helm invited us all to dance along. I think I was the only one who took him up on the suggestion, though Joseph handed round noise instruments to rattle and beat.

How much better the Sunday after Cropredy at the church of St Mary the Virgin, where a great little band, led by a guy playing the melodeon, got us all up to dance in a circle, and the push-pull action of the squeezebox lifted the rhythm and helped us to dance.

It was interesting that, despite having the correct words to the chorus, everyone sang “dance, dance” instead of Sydney’s original “dance, then”. That’s what you might call the folk process.

It’s what Maddy Prior sings in this reggae-tinged performance from the Lovely in the Dances LP.

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