On this side of the stream, low strings play over a walking, driving, rolling beat. Allison Russell is singing in a low, carrying voice.
You’re free now. You’re free now.
How does your spirit fly?’
She is singing to an ancestor, a woman who came from Ghana to this country and lived enslaved, and her voice carries on a trail where the Shakers heard songs that they felt as gifts from loved ones who had died.
Russell has won national recognition a songwriter, from NPR to Rolling Stone, and her music sounds in the Berkshire Woods this fall transforming a walk into an experience of art and music in Climbing Holy Hill at Hancock Shaker Village.
A hundred and fifty years ago, Shaker families would walk up this trail once or twice a year to pray and sing and dance at the summit, said the village’s executive, director Jennifer Trainer Thompson. They came to find a place high up and close to God. They set up stones and made a sacred place. Now two internationally known ensembles and a widely recognized composer and artist are drawing on that time and spirit to create new work and look across generations.
As the pathway moves into the wood, walkers will hear (as a recording) Russell performing with Our Native Daughters, four internationally acclaimed musicians who have come together to record an album with Smithsonian folkways. They share strong voices.
She joins Grammy and MacArthur awardwinning vocalist and banjo player Rhiannon Giddens, folk and blues guitarist and singer Amythyst Kiah, and Leyla McCalla, a New Orleans vocalist who sings in French, Haitian Creole and English, and plays cello, tenor banjo and guitar.
Across the water, the Grammy-winning ensemble Roomful of Teeth will begin to in close harmony. Composer and Brad Wells has created a new score inspired by Shaker hymns. He has been thinking about connecting sound to specific places for a long time, he said, and this work taps into a strong impulse.
Contemporary gift drawings
The climb begins with artwork by Allison Smith, a widely recognized queer non-binary artist, “time traveler and practical animist,” as they describe themselves, “based in Yelamu and Huchiun … the San Francisco Bay Area, on unceded Ohlone territory.”
Thompson knows Smith from their work at Mass MoCA 10 or 15 years ago. They have a long fascination with Shaker gift drawings, Thompson said.
In the same years when they walked up this mountain to worship, the Shakers were drawing visions they felt came to them from God, or from loved ones they had lost. They caught dreamlike images, a tree of life, another world.
Smith has a deep interest in historical reinterpretation, Thompson said — not re-enactment but reckoning. They suggested they would make a contemporary gift drawing to give away as part of the walk.
They have woven an image inspired by a circle of their own ancestors, meant to give a clear look at the past and the present — a journey through the pandemic, which for them has become a time to look inward — and a spiritual guide for the walk ahead.
Shakers walk toward heaven
For the Shakers too, this walk was a pilgrimage, Wells said. They talked of it as journey in mind and in body. They would walk up the hill hand in hand, and they would sing as they walked.
At the top they would pray and sing together, he said. They would dance, call aloud, roll in the grass. Sometimes they would hear the voices of saints and prophets speaking to them. He feels an ecstasy in their writing as they share memories of these days, an excitement in the climb and an elation when they came to the top.
He has read journals from the 1840s and 1850s and sheet music in the village archives. They described the meadow in high imaginative detail, he said — the quiet clearing became a temple with alabaster and fountains. He felt a sense of improvisation in the experience they share, a collective visioning and collective play. There is a power, he said, creating a ritual and enacting it with others with whom you feel safe.
He began this new work with songs they used to sing, walking up the hill.
“Shaker melodies feel solid,” he said. “They feel like … the soil out of which they grow, folk and sacred music traditions, sophisticated and directly expressive.”
In their early years, they would not have sung in harmony, only in melody and maybe an octave apart, but in this work he felt the melodies asked for harmonies. Any interaction with history happens in this moment, he said, “and in this moment we feel so much through harmony. It gives a center … that feels right.”
Roomful of Teeth sing in harmony
He feels a range of emotion in the music, from fear to disorientation to inspiration. The eight singers in Roomful of Teeth blend into seamless harmonies, deep low bass and voices above, high and clear.
“One of the things I love about this group,” he said, “is how well they tune with each other. They have sung together for eight years.”
Their voices have a seasoned into close intonations, and from these strands of sound, Wells wove a new sound work, drawing together fragments of Shaker songs, notes and vocals and timbres.
At the same time, he was walking the trail and mapping it in his mind to find the places where people will hear them sing. He knows of a new app that can link sound to GPS, so that a song will play only when someone stands in that one place.
“At that bend you’ll hear this voice talk about the sacred temple, or the fountain, or what the climb means to them.”
Our Native Daughters too sing two songs rooted in that time. Rhiannon Giddens has written her own lyrics to a banjo tune from 1855, Better Get Your Learning. The tune comes out of minstrelsy, she explains in the notes to the album, but she found the music first, without lyrics, and so she wrote her own. Minstrel shows were often based on brutal caricatures. She thought of what it would have meant for Black men and women and children to learn, in those years before and after the Civil War, and how much they risked. She thought about what an emancipated man or woman or child might have had to say, if they wrote a song with that name.
And the four women perform together as Russell sings Pretty Home, a song written Patsy Williamson in the mid 1800s by a Shaker sister in Kentucky. She came to the Shaker Village at Peasant Hill as a child, five years old, with the white family who enslaved her. They left, Thompson said, and she stayed, free. Before she sings, Russell talks about what it means to her to think of a Black woman before the Civil War living free and writing and singing her own music. And then she sings to a woman in her own family, with awe.
‘Blood of your blood
bone of your bone,
by the grace of your strength we have life.’