Ashokan Farewell. Everybody knows the tune from the Ken Burns Civil War documentary, shown frequently on PBS, but hardly anyone I’ve talked to knows the real story behind it, much less the title of the tune or who wrote it. As you may know, in addition to being the Fiddle Examiner, I’m a fiddler myself. Whenever I’m playing my fiddle on the street somebody always asks me if I know “that Ken Burns Civil War tune” or even “Ashokan’s Retreat.” Whenever I play “Ashokan Farewell” on the street or at an open mic, people always recognize it and love it. I’ve had students ask me to teach them how to play it too.
Most people think it was either composed during the American Civil War, or specifically for the popular PBS documentary about the Civil War, but this could not be farther from the truth. I’ve found articles on the Web explaining that Jay Ungar wrote it for his summer music camp near the Ashokan Reservoir in New York. The reservoir is part of New York City’s water supply. There is also a page on jayandmolly.com dedicated to the Ashokan Farewell that includes an interview podcast from All Things Considered.
But what is it that makes this tune so special? The haunting melody and soft tones make it soothing to listen to. It makes people want to cry. It makes people want to meditate and heal. It even makes people want to dance when played as a waltz. The tune is written in D Major, which is sometimes known as the “Key of Glory” because of bright the sounds this key produces. Many hymns are written in this key, and it is very popular in the violin and guitar repertoire. Try playing “Ashokan Farewell” (in a quiet room) near a guitar or another violin, or even an oven and listen to the objects in the room vibrate. This is caused by the open fifths and the progression of the notes used in the tune. The melody just moves and flows, beautifully, like the water that inspired it. Aside from the technical aspects of this great tune, there is more to it.
There are also many cover versions on YouTube and by popular artists such as Celtic Woman and Mark O’Connor. There’s a flute and piano duet recording by Sir James Galway and Phil Coulter. There is a recording in the UK by Captain JR Perkins & The Band Of Her Majesty’s Royal Marines (a chamber orchestra) that has helped keep the tune in BBC-FM’s Classical top 100 for nearly 20 years. Bluegrass greats, the Osborne Brothers, have recorded it. A wonderful solo piano improvisation was recorded by Chuck Leavell (keyboardist with the Rolling Stones). David Grisman recorded it with Jerry Garcia. There’s a guitar trio recording led by Jazz guitarist Charlie Byrd and beautiful renditions by pedal steel legends Winnie Winston and Lloyd Green. The list goes on. I’ve even seen it transposed for solo cello. It has become a music standard, being played at weddings, funerals, and jam sessions around the world. It is surely a famous tune whether associated with the Civil War documentary or on it’s own.
One word of warning, “Ashokan Farewell” is under copyright, so if you plan to record it, you can get a mechanical license at HarryFox.com. For any other uses contact Sam Fein at the Songwriters Guild of America in Nashville (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Sure, there is a good amount of info out there about the tune, but this still was not good enough for me. As the Fiddle Examiner I still had so many unanswered questions burning in my brain it finally drove me to find a way to extinguish them. I wasn’t satisfied with what I was finding on the Web so I decided to go right to the source. I wanted to hear the answers to my questions from Jay Ungar himself, in his own words. To my pleasant surprise, I didn’t have to wait too long. He agreed to a phone interview. I got to talk to Jay and Molly for about thirty minutes. They told me about “Ashokan Farewell” and the results of releasing the tune. Jay also told me an interesting story about his (very old) fiddle. He told me about the equipment they use to record and perform. They also told me about new music and recordings that they are working on. What really impressed me was their attitude towards composing and performing. They treat their music like children being born, living and growing, and being raised for a purpose.
When I called Mr. Ungar, he told me that he and Molly were enjoying a day at home to catch up on “what used to be paperwork, but now is emails and other correspondence.” He said that it had been raining in the Catskill mountains (They live in New York state.) and they were getting ready to take a hike along some streams that had almost dried up and were now flowing stronger than usual. Jay and Molly are such down-to-earth people it was a pleasure talking to them. They seem to truly, deeply, love music, nature, people, and each other, and their work reflects that.
When Jay explained to me how writing the Ashokan Farewell has affected his life and the lives of all the people that have heard it, it became obvious to me that the tune is an extension of his personality, his lifestyle, his work, and his beliefs. This musical work of art has a life of it’s own, and it’s still thriving. I can’t begin to tell you how thrilled I was to hear him talk about it. So let’s get to it! Here is my conversation with Jay Ungar and Molly Mason.
Fiddle Examiner: I want to ask you about the “Ashokan Farewell”. I’m sure you are probably tired of talking about it.
Jay Ungar: I’m definitely not tired of playing it…which is really good. Talking about it is fine. I’m OK with that.
FE: I’ve read that you didn’t write it for the Ken Burns Civil War documentary. You wrote it for yourself, as a Scottish lament because your summer camp was ending and you wanted to write something sad to go along with the end of the camp.
JU: Maybe if I rephrase that. It was a couple of weeks after camp ended that summer. It wasn’t really a desire to write something sad. I was starting to feel this great sense of loss and longing for Ashokan. I wanted to be back on the land, back with the people, and back with the music and dancing. I wanted to play something that would bring me back and make me feel better somehow and, as it unfolded, this new tune seemed to do that for me. It put me in touch with deep feelings and made me tear up (as in lacrimation). As it turned out, I found that I teared up every time I played even the first few notes. I began to think it was about a lot more than just the camp. For weeks I continued to believe that whatever this crying was completely personal. I wanted to understand what was going on with me before I played it for others. Eventually I did play it for a few close friends and it seemed to have the same affect on some of them, whether they had been to the camp or not. Many people are brought to tears by the tune when they hear it in the Civil War series, and certainly the coupling of the tune and that wonderful letter by Sullivan Ballou has turned on the faucets, let’s say, for many. It’s touched their hearts deeply. But the tune, on it’s own, seems to do that for some people if even they have no connection with our camp, or The Civil War, or even Anglo-American culture. I’ve seen evidence of this from Mexico, from Africa, and it’s surprising and interesting to me that it happens.
FE: It’s a great tune!
JU: Thank you.
FE: There is definitely something metaphysical going on there.
JU: Yeah, there is.
FE: It’s wonderful that you could tap into that. So how did Ken Burns actually come across your recording? Did he ever tell you?
JU: Sure. We had a band called Fiddle Fever. Two of the band members, Russ Barenberg and Matt Glaser, were working on music for Ken’s second film, the Brooklyn Bridge and they gave him the LP. Pretty much immediately Ken called me on the phone. His early films were on PBS, but he was still relatively unknown compared to how famous and influential in the world of documentary films he later became. Anyway, I got this call from him. I’d never heard of him before. He was very moved by that tune. As a result, Molly and I, and some of our other band members and friends wound up working on some of his next films such as The Congress, Empire of the Air, Thomas Hart Benton, and others, then The Civil War which brought the type of music that we play and do for Ken to the fore. And there have been at least a half a dozen films since then that we’ve been involved in with him…The West, Thomas Jefferson, Louis and Clark. Our music is heard in, The National Parks, Mark Twain, The Dust Bowl, The Roosevelts, Not By Ourselves Alone (the story of the women’s rights movement), many, many of his films. Working with Ken helped me get in touch with what I think is best about my music and what I have to communicate and offer to others. It changed the way I approach writing, recording and more.
Molly Mason: I’m going to add one tiny, little thing. In 1984, when Jay and I were in the band Fiddle Fever, which we were in for six or eight years back in the 80s, we came out with our second album (they were LPs back then). When we were recording that album there was this one song that kept “not working” in the studio. We were going to put it on as the last song to be included on the album. We would record it, and then play it back and say, “No, we just don’t have it yet.” We kept recording it, listening back and saying, “It just wasn’t working.” Finally our guitar player, Russ Barenberg, said, “Jay, why don’t we try that new waltz of yours?” which, at that point, didn’t even have a name. That was “Ashokan Farewell.” We agreed to try it. Jay played it. Then Jay and Russ played it. I added on a bass part and Evan Stover added the second violin and viola. It was finished in a short amount of time, and it sounded pretty good to us. So that got onto the album, and when the album came out it was given to Ken Burns by Russ and Matt Glaser, who were doing music for Ken’s second film, The Brooklyn Bridge.
JU: I would almost call it a magical moment, because so much time had gone into the other tune that didn’t make it, and “Ashokan Farewell” just came together. We sat back and listened to it in awe. It was powerful. We began performing “Ashokan Farewell,” with the band. This was five or six years before the Civil War series. We frequently used it as our closing number. Even though Fiddle Fever was known for high-energy, multiple-fiddle extravaganzas this quiet, contemplative tune reached audiences and moved them deeply.
MM: So when Ken got the album in 1984 he kind of tucked the tune away in the back of his mind. He began working on The Civil War less than a year later and probably knew from the start that “Ashokan Farewell” would play an important role in the music.
FE: So you had performed it quite a lot before the series was even released.
MM: We used to play it at concerts, commonly towards the end, or at the end of our Fiddle Fever shows and it was always very well received. I want to say one other thing about Ken Burns and working with him in the early days. It seemed as if he was trying us out to see if we would work for what he needed for his films. He hired us for some smaller films in the mid 80s.
During the sessions that we did for Ken’s shorter films in the 1980s we watched his process evolve. At first he used the more common method where the final edit of the film is complete and the music is then recorded to exactly match the length of a given scene. It might be one minute and twelve seconds, or three minutes and eight seconds, or whatever. As you can imagine, in a studio that’s kind of stressful to try and play something meaningful and full of feeling in exactly one minute and twelve seconds. You play it, and you get to the end, then the guy in the control room says that it’s six seconds too long so you have to play it again. Anyway, during a session with Ken for his film Thomas Hart Benton, when he was still working in that same old-time way, we’d just recorded a take of one of the tunes and Ken’s musical director said it was too long and we needed to do it over. I remember Ken saying, “Wait! That had exactly the right feel. I’ll re-edit the film to fit it.” From then on he’d describe scenes to us, their emotional content, and have us play a variety of different moods and arrangements. Then if a piece of music expressed the perfect emotion, he’d plan to fit the film around the music instead of the other way around.
FE: That’s the way it should be!
JU: Well nobody works that way. He still, to a large extent, records music, gets it to have the emotional content that he’s looking for…and the same with the voice overs and the sound effects that are in the background, and then it’s all woven together. Sometimes the music is edited to fit film segments, the voices are edited, but it’s all like weaving or making a quilt. It becomes a whole. It’s judged for it’s impact and it’s message and it’s really effective. It probably takes a lot longer, but it’s a wonderful way to work.
FE: That’s interesting. I didn’t know that you had performed it before it was in the series. A lot of people don’t know that. A lot of people don’t know that you wrote it. People assume that it was written just for the series. There are so many misconceptions about it. That’s why I wanted to get the answers straight from the source. And you’ve composed so many other wonderful tunes. “The Lovers’ Waltz: is great.
JU: That one Molly and I wrote together. It became the theme for Ken’s film, Not for Ourselves Alone, and a lot of people play it and have recorded it. It’s very gratifying.
FE: About other people recording your songs, do you sometimes feel like the “Ashokan Farewell” isn’t your tune anymore?
JU: I definitely feel like it has a life of it’s own. It’s out there and we get letters and emails every week about it. Some weeks they come in everyday. It’s usually personal stories about how it was used at a wedding or a funeral or how it affected somebody at a crucial time in their life. So I feel like it’s out there doing it’s job. It was not an intentional thing, but it’s gratifying to know that it has that life of it’s own and is valuable to others.
FE: That’s a great attitude.
MM: Jay, I don’t think you ever felt like you’ve really owned it. I think it feels more like a child.
JU: Some people know that I act like I own it…(Laughing)… I think of it as a stewardship. There have been requests to use it that we have stopped and rejected because I felt that it narrowed the scope of what the tune might be thought of or how it might be used in the future. Some wanted to associate it with something I thought was the wrong thing to associate it with.
FE: Well it certainly worked out. Do you still get residuals when people record it?
JU: Oh yes. Absolutely. In fact, the benefits to Molly and I are huge. For one thing, there are royalties that come in from the many, many different uses. Most of them are really small, but there have been a few recordings that are such big sellers, I think the biggest one to date is by Celtic Woman. They recorded it and put it in a PBS special. Also, the fact that it has opened up so many performance opportunities for us ranging from drawing sizable audiences in towns across the country, to performing at the White House a couple of times. These opportunities have allowed us to get our music to more and more people and have allowed us to spend a good portion of our life doing what I like to call “pro bono” work as volunteers for what is now the Ashokan Foundation and the Ashokan Center…the place that inspired the tune. You can go to AshokanCenter.org to find out more about Ashokan. It was established as an outdoor education center for schools in the 1960s by the State University of New York. Molly and I run Ashokan Music & Dance Camps there, which I started in 1980. In 2008 we and a group of dedicated people formed the Ashokan Foundation to save the place and the programs, because the State University was no longer interested in owning and managing the property. Ashokan is a 385-acre nature preserve and retreat center where thousands of school kids experience nature for the first time each year and countless people have had life-changing experiences in music, dancing and the natural world. Our ability to put in so much time as volunteers there has been made possible by the success of “Ashokan Farewell.” It’s our way of “paying it forward.”
FE: Did you make any money from the documentary?
JU: Some, but not a lot directly.
FE: So what’s your biggest source of income? Is it touring? Recordings?
JU: Oh, it varies from year to year. Touring and recording are probably about 50/50 with the royalty stream. Some years one is more than the other. But the amount of joy and fulfillment I feel is the greatest gift. So much of my musical life has it’s roots in those camps. All the people we get to hire and bring there are deeply immersed in different traditional roots music idioms. We get to learn from them, jam with them, and hang out with them. And then there are all the amazing people who attend the camp to learn and share the music and dancing. Many deep friendships have grown from this, and our music has grown in many ways because of it.
FE: That’s what it’s all about. Now you toured Scotland, and that’s how you got ideas for “Ashokan Farewell”. You wanted to write a Scottish lament. Do you know the Neil Gow Lament?
JU: Oh yeah. I’ll say that “Neil Gow’s Lament for the Death of His Second Wife” was the first Scottish lament that I ever heard. I was probably in my late teens and was pretty much transfixed by it. I’d never heard anything like it before. It really hit me deeply and heavily. I became fascinated with that music. I don’t know that I was trying to write a Scottish lament, but having spent time in Scotland that summer, the tune that started to emerge when I was writing “Ashokan Farewell,” felt to me like a Scottish lament. I think that most people who write music, who write songs, have two different processes. One is where you work hard and you make it happen. The other is where it just starts happening to you and you go along for the ride. Then there’s stuff that’s in between, a hybrid. Well, writing ”Ashokan Farewell” I was definitely along for the ride (Laughs) and probably still am.
FE: So, going back to your childhood, what made you want to play the violin (or the fiddle) and what made you want to be a professional musician?
JU: I loved music from birth is what my mom said. As an infant I was constantly affected by music around me. There was a lot of music to be heard in the home. My parents didn’t play instruments, but they both sang at home and had record collections that spanned classical, even some opera, Broadway music, and folk music as well. I heard a lot of music, and I loved it all. At age six I started asking for music lessons. I didn’t know what I wanted to play yet. At seven they finally said, “Okay, you are old enough now.” Today people think three is old enough and that’s even better. At seven, we went to a person who was purported to teach many, many different instruments. His name was Alexander Blackman. He played a number of different instruments for me, but his main instrument was the violin. When I heard it live, in person, that’s the instrument I wanted to play. I wasn’t thinking, as a kid, that this would be my career. In fact, although my parents supported my interest in music, they did not encourage me to be a professional musician.
FE: Parents never do.
JU: The profession of fiddler was not really viable in the 1950s, 1960s, even to the 70s. Pretty much anyone who did it either had a day job or lived in abject poverty. I went for the latter route, playing the music I loved and living on next to nothing by being my own plumber, carpenter, car mechanic and such for many, many years. Then interest in acoustic string music started to burgeon. The soundtrack to The Civil War in 1990 was one of the things that helped that along, and a film like O Brother, Where Art Thou, and even Flat and Scruggs dong the music in the The Beverly Hillbillies television series, and other inroads that bluegrass made into the popular media world. When people heard traditional American bluegrass and old time music, even if they hadn’t grown up with it, many of them just became very attracted to it. It spoke to them. For me, traditional fiddle music and string band music, as a kid growing up in the Bronx in the 50s, that sound connected me with the best things about earlier times and a rural lifestyle, and I pursued the rural lifestyle for sure.
FE: That’s a great story. Do you have anything coming up that you’d like to talk about?
JU: Our next CD will be a compilation. It’s going to be called “The Quiet Room.” That’s the title of a relatively new tune that we haven’t released yet, but the CD is going to be, mostly, a compilation of the airs and waltzes from our previous work…with a few new ones. It’s designed for healing. This comes from the many letters and stories people have sent us about how they used our music in a healing process. In 2003 and 2004 Molly went underwent some very serious surgery to remove a brain tumor. After initial serious complications her second surgery was a complete success. She was very fortunate. Music played a very important role in her recovery. Actually, it affected doctors and nurses around her in a very positive way and we learned a lot from that. Now, more than ten years later, we’re just getting around to expressing our gratitude and what we learned in this special CD.
MM: If people want to find out where we are playing, we do make it to Virginia and Georgia, the Midwest, west coast and all kinds of other places, you can go to jayandmolly.com.
JU: You can also go to bandsintown.com and sign up to follow us. If we are playing within a certain geographic range of you, you will automatically get a notice. Isn’t that cool? And you won’t get bothered when we are playing somewhere else.
MM: And if people want to find out about our camps, we still do those every summer. We do eight different programs between April and August. You can go to ashokan.org.
JU: Ashokancenter.org shows the full range of the things that happen at Ashokan and ashokan.org focuses just on the music and dance part of things. Our newer camps are run by some of our musical heroes. For instance Bruce Molsky and Debra Clifford are running the Old Time Rollick at Ashokan in April, and Scottish fiddler Alasdair Fraser and Natalie Haas do a weekend camp at Ashokan in May. We’ll be touring the northwest and the east coast with Alasdair and Natalie this winter.
FE: You get a great sound out of your fiddle when you are performing live. I’ve seen some videos from your live shows on YouTube, and you sound great! Do you just use a mic or do you ever use a pickup?
JU: I never use a pickup, but occasionally use an Audio Technica clip on mic when playing with our swing band. Molly and I, for more than ten years, have done nearly 100 percent of our performing through a vintage stereo microphone. It’s an AKG C522, if anybody wants to know. Part of what you are hearing is the quality of that remarkable microphone. I’ve collected few of them because they don’t make them anymore and we depend on them, heavily, for everything we do. But the other important factor is of course my fiddle. I usually play an 1849 violin made by George Gemumder in Astoria, Queens—a New York state instrument. It’s a special violin and it came to me rather fortuitously. I was giving banjo lessons to Sloan Wainwright, who is a singer/songwriter. I think she was a teenager at that time. Her brother is Loudon Wainwright, who is a well-known singer/songwriter as well, and he had this violin. Sloan knew that he wasn’t playing it anymore and lent it to me for a few months, after which Loudon very generously sold it to me. It was kind of “love at first sight” for me with this instrument.
FE: That was going to be my next question. So it is a violin or a fiddle?
JU: You know there are so many jokes around that. One of them is, “What’s the difference between a violin and a fiddle? You don’t spill beer on a violin.”
FE: And the other joke is that nobody wants to steal a fiddle.
JU: But that isn’t really true. (Laughs)
MM: Yeah, I’ve heard of fiddles getting stolen. It really depends on who is playing it. I’ve heard your instrument be both a fiddle and violin. Also, regarding that fiddle that was built in 1849, it was the first American-made violin to win the London Exhibition.
JU: It won a medal in 1851 in London.
MM: There was this kind of long-time, ongoing thing in Europe where people believed that American-made meant that it wasn’t good, because Americans were just “upstarts” that didn’t really know what they were doing. So it was really a big deal to have an American-made violin win that competition.
FE: Yeah, up until then all the famous violins were made in Cremona, Italy or Germany.
MM: And France too.
JU: That prejudice still exists. Our friend, David Bromberg has made it part of his life’s work to educate people about American violin building.
FE: Do you have a favorite type of strings?
JU: We both endorse D’Addario Strings and use them on all of our instruments.
MM: I use D’Addario phosphor bronze guitar strings, the kind that are medium on the bottom and light on top. I’ve been very happy with D’Addario Helicore bass strings as well.
JU: I use their Helicores on most of my fiddles. I like the sound and responsiveness, they break-in quickly and last. I use also use their strings on my mandolins, steel string banjo and guitar as well. But I use Aquila Nylgut on one of my favorite banjos. It has no name, was probably made in the 1890s, and has a skin head.
FE: Anything else you want to mention?
JU: Dates for our 2016 Ashokan Music & Dance Camps are on the web at Ashokan.org and registration has opened for New Years at Ashokan Dec 31 – Jan 1 and our spring weekend camps – Bruce Molsky & Debra Clifford’s Old Time Rollick April 1 – 3, Alasdair Fraser & Natalie Haas’ Trad Strings Workshop April 29 – May 1 and Uke Fest May 27 -29. All details are at Ashokan.org/camps.
MM: See you at Ashokan!