Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Ashokan Farewell

It is one of the most moving pieces of Civil War music that I have ever heard but it isn't a Civil War song. In 1984 filmmaker Ken Burns heard the Jay Ungar tune and used it in his 1990 documentary "The Civil War". The song is played 25 times throughout the eleven-hour series, including during the emotional reading of Sullivan Ballou's letter to his wife in the first episode; it underlies almost an hour of film. The song is named for Ashokan, a camp in the Catskill Mountains not far from Woodstock, New York where Jay and his wife live. According to Jay, the name Ashokan comes from a Indian word meaning "great place to fish".

In 1982 Jay felt saddended over the end of the camping season and sought solace in his music. The return to normal life after spending a few months in the woods where intrapersonal relationships flourished bothered Jay. Mr. Ungar felt that technology and capitalism had made life stale and impersonal so he attempted to create a piece of music that best represented that feeling of loss. This is how the Ashokan Farewell was created. After spending time plucking away at his violin strings Jay produced a song that moved him so much that even he was speechless. He later stated "By the time the tune took form, I was in tears. I kept it to myself for months." The song was completed when Ungar worked with several other people to produce a guitar, bass and sting portion. He used the song on his next record in 1983 but the tune wouldn't reach national attention for another seven years.

In 1990 Ken Burns released a documentary about the Civil War that took him nearly five years to complete. Burns sought a picture that utualized the photographs and music of the period. However, for the shows theme song he picked Ungar's Ashokan Farewell and used it throughout the film. The recording is heard twenty five times throughout the eleven hour film. In fact, the Ashokan Farewell plays for a grand total of 59 minutes and 33 seconds! The song outplays any other tune that Burns used which is surprising because it is not vintage Civil War era music.

I am not a musically orientated person but I have to say that Ashokan Farewell is one of the best pieces of music that I have ever heard. Jay's intent to create a piece of music that expresses his sense of loss and change really comes out. I usually think of the Civil War, its battles, its tragedy when I hear the song. Also my thoughts tend to shift to loved ones who have passed on because that is what the Ashokan Farewell is all about saying goodbye. Today, Jay and his wife have a great website where you can purchase the tune and other great pieces that they have made over the years. Check it out when you get a chance it is well worth your time.

1 comment:

Skywise said...

very good post mike! and very true about ashokan.. I used it recently in a powerpoint I had to do for teacher re-licensure.

I knew it wasn't a civil war era song but thanks for the explanations of the song's origin!