The One with the Simple Gifts

When I say Las Vegas, you might think:

  1. Elvis
  2. Casinos
  3. Britney Spears  The Rat Pack

But when I say Las Vegas, I think:

  1. Aaron Copland
  2. Simple Gifts
  3. Martha Graham

Not what you’d expect, I know. But it was in Sin City that I was introduced to the most beautiful song that has stayed with me ever since.

Years ago on my first (and only) (and last) trip to Las Vegas, my friends and I had tooled around town checking out all the free shows the casinos had to offer, but the only one we found worthwhile (read: not cheesy) were the fountains in front of the Bellagio. In the middle of the eight-acre lake that is supposed to be Lake Como in Italy, water dances to songs ranging from Frank Sinatra’s “Luck Be a Lady” to the theme from the Pink Panther. If you can stop yourself from wondering how they engineered this feat (1,200 spritzers shooting water 460 feet in the air), you can be swept away by the magnificence of the  choreography.

Bellagio Fountains

The Bellagio Fountains via Wikimedia Commons, Brocken Inaglory

Inspector Clouseau would be proud:

We must have stayed at the fountains for an hour or more absolutely captivated by the water ballet. My favorite by far was “Simple Gifts,” which is an excerpt from “Appalachian Spring,” a score by Aaron Copland. In a city of excess I felt the song as cleansing and pure. I can only explain it as tunnel vision. The kind I get when I write fiction. I was so consumed by the experience I blocked out everything and just let the melody wash over me. In the middle of Las Vegas, that’s saying a lot.

As you all know, I don’t play any instruments (at least not in a way that you would enjoy), nor do I have much experience with classical or operatic music, so my appreciation of “Simple Gifts” is a personal aesthetic. Who can explain why some songs feel like a homecoming? Why some connect me to a wordless place in my soul? 

Only later would I learn that Copland had written “Appalachian Spring” as a ballet for Martha Graham in 1944 (and won a Pulitzer Prize in 1945). “It was a piece that expressed hope and possibility despite the hard times and sacrifice still ahead,” said Jocelyn Gonzalez with WNYC, Studio 360. The score is not lush, but it still feels powerful. Actually, I think the term openness is better. It feels open. “Appalachian Spring” is designed to build to the melody known as “Simple Gifts” which was taken almost directly from a Shaker hymn called ‘Tis the Gift to Be Simple.

Recently “Simple Gifts” came on my shuffle player and for some reason I was transported back to the Bellagio all these years later. Then the opening lines of a short story popped into my mind:  It was two a.m. They’d now been up for nearly twenty-four hours. Married for four. Yet they stood at the edge of the lake, unable to tear themselves away… I don’t usually write about what I’m writing about, but I am struck once again by how inspiration comes from the unlikeliest of places. Everything I experience has a cumulative effect and percolates (love that word) at its own pace.

Here you can listen to the lovely Alison Krauss singing the Shaker hymn ‘Tis the Gift to Be Simple accompanied by Yo-Yo Ma on cello. Her clean, crisp voice matches the melody perfectly.

This post was written for the weekly writing challenge.

Have you ever had a heart-felt reaction to a song? Has a song ever inspired you in some way? 

Have a great weekend, everyone!

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46 comments

  1. I have fallen in love with the hymn, thank you for sharing this.
    The song inspiring me today isn’t quite a hymn, but for me it is a celebration of finding one’s own way. “Drag Queens and Limousines” by Mary Gauthier.

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  2. I have often experienced heart-felt reactions to songs that have perfectly captured my mood at the moment, but they have not necessarily inspired my writing which veers more in the direction of flummoxed, screwball or snarky — the type of nitwitted scribbling that might compel Aaron Copland to crack a woodwind over my noggin.

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  3. Lovely post, Jackie. Allison Krauss has the most ethereal voice, doesn’t she? I love this arrangement.
    When we were in Vegas a few years ago, they only played Andrea Boccelli singing Italian songs for the Bellagio fountains. Nice, but not as good as Aaron Copland. Thanks for this.

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  4. I do love Alison Krauss. Her voice is beautiful and can be haunting. Music does inspire me and when I’m struggling with getting words out, I’ll fire up my ipod. However, the songs don’t always affect me the same way. It completely depends on my mood. I haven’t been to Vegas in many years. I used to go a lot when I was a kid and it was such a depressing town and I hated it. When I returned as an adult I was in awe of the changes they made. Now I would love to go back if the flight wasn’t so long. Now I may consider Monte Carlo–closer.

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    1. You know, I generally don’t listen to music when I’m writing. I tend to get distracted into the lyrics and then lose all focus on my writing. But when I’m not writing, I try to listen to music that my characters might like. When I was working on my last novel which was set in the 1940s, I had some big band tunes on my player. It helps me to keep the characters in the forefront of my mind.

      If you go to Monte Carlo, please place $5 on black 31. Thank you. 🙂

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  5. Have always loved this song! In our hymnal there is a version called “Lord of the Dance” and it was sung at my father’s funeral. I love the tune. My favorite song these days is Who Are We Fooling by Brooke Frasier. It has a line in it that says “i am tethered to you”. My hubby sent it to me and told me that was us–we are tethered together. Aw……I turn it up LOUD and get transported.

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  6. For some reason I’m having problems posting comments to your blog today (so I apologize if you get more than one… the first was much better, by the way 😉

    I love that song, too, and can well imagine how captivating the fountain playing it was — as are your opening words to your story. I love it and am so glad you shared. I always have a playlist for whatever I’m writing and it’s composed of songs that the first time I hear them seem to immediately transport me into the story in my head, sometimes guiding the direction of the story. So useful when I sit down to write, taking me into the zone!

    Great post, Jackie!

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    1. Do you listen to music when you write or do you prefer to write in silence? I often use music for inspiration, but then when I sit down to write, I find music a bit distracting.

      PS – I don’t know why the comment thing happens from time to time. Thanks for reposting!

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      1. I almost always listen to music while I write and first it gets me ramped up for the writing and then it fades into the background as I go deeper into the zone. Interestingly, writers are very split on this question — I wrote a post about it for Writer Unboxed a couple of months back and it got more comments than any other post I’ve ever written — people are passionate about it, both for and against!

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      2. The individual preferences for music are so interesting. I can only listen to music while I’m editing / revising. If I try to listen while I’m writing, I get terribly distracted. It never seems to recede into the background for me.

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  7. I must confess–it’s one of my favorite song, as well. I heard it years ago as a teenager for the first time. I think it’s the simplicity that makes it so lovely.

    Hope you had a wonderful weekend. Sorry to be so late getting here. Trying to catch up.

    Hugs from Ecuador,
    Kathy

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    1. This is 100% true! It is also at the Bellagio (same casino / hotel as these fountains). Supposedly the “world’s largest.”
      Ps – I’d like to be the person in charge of measuring all of the chocolate fountains in the world.

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  8. I love Allison Krauss’ voice! What a truly unlikely (and refreshing) post about Vegas. Thank you for sharing. Your post reminded me a great deal of the intoxicating agony of the creative process, most specifically, when you said ” I was so consumed by the experience I blocked out everything and just let the melody wash over me”… So perfectly accurate about the feel of a good song or being transported to the bliss of making art. Loved this post! Gosh, there are so many songs that take me to that place…I could not just pick one…

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    1. Isn’t is strange how some songs can take you immediately to a specific place and time in your life? Whenever I hear this song, I always go back to the Bellagio. So very odd to think of Las Vegas when I hear the song “Simple Gifts.” How ironic! 🙂 Thanks so much for your comment.

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  9. Duuuuuuuuuude. I haven’t been to Vegas in a while but I’m actually one of the few peeps that really like it. I’m in love with food and like shows and if I had money I’d play the craps tables more often. But checking out the fountains in front of the Bellagio is also one of my favorite activities. The Pink Panther one is awesome and I am blown away at the awesomeness of how they pulled that off. 🙂

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    1. I’d love to find out how the fountains actually work. How do they sync the music to the fountains? How do they program each individual sprayer? (There are hundreds of them!) I’m sure there is some YouTube video I could watch, but I think it would spoil the mystery of it all. I guess I’ll stay in the dark about that one. 🙂

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