A Civil War Tribute on the Music Stand
PBS-TV stations nationwide last week aired filmmaker Ken Burns’ award-winning 1990 documentary series The Civil War, commemorating the 150th anniversary of the first shots in that bloody chapter in US history.
Fiddler Jay Ungar composed the haunting theme song, “Ashokan Farewell,” which played a big role setting the mood of the documentary. Twenty-five versions of the fiddle tune, including the plaintive solo-fiddle version, can be heard throughout the series—according to Ungar’s website, the tune is played for a total of 59 minutes and 33 seconds of the 11-hour series.
It’s a timeless tribute not only to the heartache wrought by that war, but also the power of string music to transport the listener to another time and place.
Sheet music of “Ashokan Farewell” is available at jayandmolly.com.
Ungar composed “Ashokan Farewell” in 1982. The tune, which takes its name from Ungar’s hometown on the shores of the Ashokan Reservoir in upstate New York, was inspired by the sense of loss and longing Ungar felt after participants had left his annual Ashokan Fiddle and Dance Camp. “The transition from living at a secluded woodland camp with a small group of people who needed little excuse to celebrate the joy of living, back to life as usual, with traffic, newscasts, telephones and impersonal relationships, had been difficult,” he wrote. “By the time the tune took form, I was in tears. I kept it to myself for months, unable to fully understand the emotions that welled up whenever I played it. I had no idea that this simple tune could effect others in the same way.”
In 1983, Ungar recorded a string-band arrangement of the song with his band Fiddle Fever. The following year, Burns heard it and decided then and there to use in his film, which was still six years from completion.
Ungar, along with wife Molly, the members of Fiddle Fever, and pianist Jacqueline Schwab can be heard throughout the soundtrack.
“[We] played much of the 19th-century music heard throughout the soundtrack,” Ungar notes on his website. “‘Ashokan Farewell’ is the only contemporary tune that was used.”
Performance note: On May 21, at the Ashokan Center, Ungar will perform at “Answering Lincoln’s Call,” part of the New York State commemoration of the Civil War sesquicentennial honoring the memory of the Hudson Valley’s citizen soldiers. There will be an encampment program and concerts and a dance. On May 22, he will join a special armed forces appreciation day celebration. Learn more at the ashokancenter.org.
Study opportunity: You can experience first hand the 2011 Ashokan Fiddle and Dance Camp when Jay and Molly Ungar host five one-week fiddle sessions, running between June 26 and August 20. Sign up at ashokan.org.
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