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June 20, 2019 - November 11, 2019

While Mighty Thunders Roll:
Popular Artists Sing the Shakers

Hancock Shaker Village

1843 W Housatonic St., Pittsfield, Massachusetts

Image courtesy Hancock Shaker Village

While Mighty Thunders Roll: Popular Artists Sing the Shakers, a stunning video and audio exhibition, opens Sunday, May 26 at Hancock Shaker Village. The exhibition features specially commissioned a cappella recordings of Shaker songs by artists such as folk-pop legend Natalie Merchant and indie sensation Mountain Man, with a prelude performance by world-renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma. While Mighty Thunders Roll will be open through November 11.

The Shakers wrote more than 25,000 songs, about 10,000 of which survive. Now, some 230 years after the first transcribed Shaker songs, While Mighty Thunders Roll shines a light on the songs of this singular American spiritual movement, revealing them as classic American compositions still engaging audiences today. “While Mighty Thunders Roll enlivens the history of Shaker music and illuminates the power of voice as a fundamental expression of spirit,” said Jennifer Trainer, director of Hancock Shaker Village. “Our goal is to make Hancock Shaker Village a breathing living history museum, recognizing that history is not only about what happened two hundred years ago, but also about what happened yesterday. The musical heritage of the Shakers is as vast and beautiful as their design legacy, and this exhibition — which includes performances by artists ranging from roots to punk rockers — is part of an ongoing series to revisit the Shakers through a contemporary lens.”

While Mighty Thunders Roll will be exhibited in two locations on the Hancock Shaker Village campus. In the Visitor Center Gallery, visitors will interact with videos of the performances, queueing the spirituals, hymns, and ballads they prefer to hear. In the Meetinghouse, the historic location of Shaker musical life, the songs will be presented as an immersive experience, played on a continuous loop.

Also included in the exhibition will be a display of historic objects and ephemera related to Shaker music, primarily drawn from the Village’s permanent collection and archive. Shaker song sheets, tune books, and musical instruments will be shown alongside photographs, recordings, and broadsides that illustrate the lengthy and culturally rich history of Shaker song.

While Mighty Thunders Roll assembles its own portraits of acclaimed musicians singing Shaker songs, notes guest curator and producer Jeffrey Gaskill, which reveal expressions of joy, grief, praise, and humble assertions of faith. “I was drawn to Shaker music for its timeless world view and enduring message,” Gaskill said. “Now more than ever, people need authenticity and a reminder of such Shaker values as gender and racial equality, pacifism, and the welcoming of strangers.”

Videos of the artists were shot in a close-up format, each artist performing against a simple white backdrop. “There are no distractions — it’s one person, one screen, one song,” Gaskill explained. “The intimate filming allows the viewer to see facial expressions, which really heightens the emotions of each song.”

Artists included in the exhibition:

Little Nora Brown, traditional folk singer, performs “Little Children” (1857, Pleasant Hill, Kentucky). Says the artist: “There’s ballads and old-time music, and I do that a lot, but I think, singing a cappella, it’s more pure, just to hear the sound coming from the body. And with the Shaker songs the words are deep. Sort of like poetry.”

Tim Eriksen, folk and punk rock singer, performs “Farewell Earthly Joys” (1855, Canterbury, New Hampshire) and “Father James’ Song” (1783, Father James Whittaker, Harvard, Massachusetts). “The tune of ‘Farewell Earthly Joys,’ that sense of longing, and everything about it makes it one of my favorites,” Eriksen says. “That feeling of looking for something deeper, something more lasting, is certainly not out of step with contemporary thought.”

Rayna Gellert, folk singer, performs “I Never Did Believe” (1829, written by Eldress Betsy Bates, New Lebanon, New York). “Spiritual music is good. It’s just good music. And I feel that you can respond to it on a spiritual level no matter what your spirituality might be,” Gellert says. “It makes me feel something. I never get tired of that.”

Alice Gerrard, country and bluegrass singer, performs “Lay Me Low” (1838, Sister Addah Z. Potter, New Lebanon, New York). Says Gerrard: “I became obsessed with this song. I spent about four days researching it, and it was fascinating. The Shakers are fascinating. There is so much to be said about their beliefs and way of life.” 

Hiss Golden Messenger, folk and gospel musician, performs “Fall on the Rock” (1845, Watervliet, New York). Hiss Golden Messenger's M.C. Taylor says: “I was drawn to ‘Fall on the Rock’ because the melody to me is compelling. Like any song, the thing that gets my soul first is the melody. That’s often the thing I feel first.”

Katell Keineg, alternative pop/rock singer, performs “Willow Tree” (1840s, Sister Mary Hazard, New Lebanon, New York). “The first Shaker song I heard was ‘Simple Gifts’ sung by Judy Collins. What I love most about Shaker songs are the simplicity and poignancy of some of the melodies and lyrics. I’m glad to contribute to anything that helps to preserve the songs,” Keineg says.

Yo-Yo Ma, classical cellist, performs “All is Summer” (1875, Groveland, New York). Says Ma: “The Shakers loved music and they loved to dance. And, so much of the music is a joyful celebration of community. The Shaker community and philosophy is part of an original American tradition.”

Natalie Merchant, folk and pop singer, performs “Watch Ye” (1841, Sister Nancy Wells, Watervliet, New York). “The reason I chose this song is I found it really comforting to people who are dying,” Merchant said. “I think when people are passing they need to be comforted and assured that they’re passing into a better realm.”

Mountain Man, indie and folk band, performs “Simple Gifts” (1848, Elder Joseph Brackett, Alfred, Maine). Notes Alexandra Sauser-Monnig of Mountain Man: “ ‘Simple Gifts’ is a very beautiful song that’s such a part of the popular music culture, I feel like I’ve heard it everywhere my whole life. I really love the sentiment of the song.”

Allison Russell, folk and Americana artist, performs “Pretty Home” (1849, Sister Patsy Williamson, Pleasant Hill, Kentucky). Russell says, “There are so many layers to this song. It’s very powerful to have a document, for posterity, of a black woman in the time of slavery — writing, free and emancipated, this powerful music. It’s stood the test of time and resonates now.”

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