‘Ashokan Farewell’ was life-changer for composer

Jay Ungar’s “Ashokan Farewell” sounded so much like a 19th century melody that even he developed som
Jay Ungar and Molly Mason
Jay Ungar and Molly Mason

Jay Ungar’s “Ashokan Farewell” sounded so much like a 19th century melody that even he developed some doubts about its origin.

A popular folk musician and composer who lives in the Hudson Valley, Ungar wrote the song back in 1982. But it wasn’t until 1990, when documentary filmmaker Ken Burns used it as the theme for his award-winning PBS series “The Civil War,” that the tune became embedded in the American consciousness.

“We had been performing ‘Ashokan Farewell’ for about six years with our band, ‘Fiddle Fever,’ and we knew it had a powerful effect on people,” said Ungar, who, along with his wife, Molly Mason, will perform at the Valatie Community Theatre in Columbia County next Saturday at 7 p.m.

“But I was extremely surprised at the national interest that occurred after Ken’s series came out. I think the thing was that the tune just got to people, right into their heart and soul.”

Burns certainly included himself in that group.

“I first heard this extraordinary piece of music on an album called ‘Fiddle Fever’ and instantly knew how good it was,” Burns said in an email from his office in Walpole, New Hampshire.

“What I couldn’t imagine was the overwhelming response the country had to it, from presidents to ordinary folks in every part of America. Today, the tune will be played dozens of times at weddings and funerals, memorial services and renewing of vows.”

Twenty-five years after he wrote it, Ungar says the song is still well-received when he and Mason tour the country together performing acoustic folk music.

Described by Ungar as “a Scottish lament written by a Jewish boy from the Bronx,” the song earned him an Emmy nomination and a Grammy for the soundtrack album. The series ran from Sept. 23-27 in 1990 and was viewed by a record 40 million people. The song is played in the film 25 times.

“It’s the only piece of music in the film that wasn’t written in the 19th century,” said Ungar. “Yet, within the context of the series it seemed so authentic. It had nothing to do with the Civil War when I wrote it. It was more inspired by a feeling of loss and longing that I had in the weeks after one of our first fiddle and dance summer camps ended in ’82.”

Doubters seek origin

“Ashokan Farewell” seemed so authentic that some people were convinced it was material that Ungar had dug up somewhere and tweaked to make it his own. In fact, the pushback was so strong that Ungar began to second-guess himself.

“A number of people made it their goal to prove that the song had existed and that I really didn’t write it,” he said. “Occasionally, even now I get a person who wants to show me up and prove that the song is actually very old. In a sense, I didn’t really know where it came from because it did come to me quite easily, and so many people were searching for the antecedent because they were convinced that I copied it, I started to doubt myself.”

The song starts out with a mournful violin solo from Ungar, who is later accompanied by a guitar and upright bass. It was played in its entirety during a particular poignant section of the film, the reading of the Sullivan Ballou Letter after the Second Battle of Manassas. While Ungar was already a fairly successful musician, the song changed his life.

“I got contacted by newspapers around the country,” said Ungar, who has also worked on other Burns’ documentaries, including “Lewis and Clark,” “The Roosevelts,” and “The Dust Bowl.”

“I was interviewed by The New York Times and the Philadelphia Enquirer, and I did a bunch of morning TV shows. The phone rang off the hook. It was endless, and a little scary, frankly, and so unexpected. I don’t know the right word, but it bordered on being disturbing at times.”

Playing re-enactments

Ungar’s fiddle-playing and his connection to the Civil War have made him a favorite among historical re-enactors, and just last week he and Mason were performing at the 150th anniversary of the American flag being raised at Fort Sumter in South Carolina at the conclusion of the Civil War.

Fiddle players in Civil War period costumes began flocking to his summer camp at the Ashokan Center in the Catskills years ago, and they’re still coming.

“Jay started with just one camp way back in 1980, and I first taught there in 1981,” remembered Mason, who met Ungar in 1978, became romantically linked in 1985 and married him in 1991.

“Now, it’s become pretty huge in our lives. We do all kinds of music every summer, but back then, when ‘The Civil War’ came out, after two summers it became painfully obvious, all these people being Civil War buffs, that those people who played the Southern re-enactors didn’t get along with the traditional fiddle players who were the Northern re-enactors. We divided it up into a Northern week and a Southern week, and we’ve kept it separate every year since.”

Along with their touring, Ungar and Mason do a monthly show on WAMC-Northeast Public Radio, “Dancing on the Air,” which is broadcast the second Wednesday of each month.

“We used to do it at The Linda [WAMC’s performance space], but now we record it in a studio much closer to us down here,” said Mason. “We invite guests over and have a great time. We call it our living room. It’s very homey.”

Connecting with their audience is something Ungar and Mason do quite well, according to Melinda Perrin, director of A Place for Folk, which puts on concerts at the Unitarian Universalist Society of Schenectady. The group hosted a performance by Ungar and Mason last March, and the pair will open A Place for Folk’s 2015 fall season at the UUSS on Oct. 9.

“Their music is absolutely wonderful, and their personal persona exceeds their recordings,” said Perrin, who hopes to have the duo back in Schenectady in 2016. “They have a warmth to them and a rapport with the audience that is extraordinary. When they did ‘Ashokan Farewell’ and some of their other waltzes, we had people get up and start dancing.”

Ungar, who turns 69 this fall, isn’t yet tired of touring and performing live for his fans.

“We don’t travel too much in the winter, and we have all our camps in the summer, so this is the time of year we get pretty busy traveling,” he said. “I don’t know. Maybe we should slow down a little bit, but we haven’t yet and we still really enjoy it.”

While they typically perform as a duo, Ungar and Mason do have a “family band,” which includes Ungar’s daughter Ruth Ungar and her husband, Michael Merenda. They also have a swing band they call “Swingology,” which will be performing at the Ashokan Center on May 16.

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