“Ashokan Farewell” opens doors for Jay Ungar and Molly Mason
by Seth Rogovoy
(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., January 13, 2002) – Few folk musicians are able to parlay playing traditional music into a career that is both artistically successful and commercially viable. And fewer still can do so on the basis of having written a new melody that is constantly being mistaken for an old one.
But this is precisely what has happened to Jay Ungar and Molly Mason. The husband-and-wife folk duo, who are perhaps most familiar to residents of our region as the hosts of the monthly, live program, Dancing on the Air, broadcast on Albany-based WAMC’s Northeast Public Radio Network, are also known worldwide for their participation in the Ken Burns documentary The Civil War, and particularly for Ungar’s composition, “Ashokan Farewell,” which served as the haunting theme song to the award-winning PBS series.
It’s somewhat fitting that one of Ungar’s recent credits as a studio musician was lending his fiddle to fellow Hudson Valley musician Graham Parker’s Struck By Lightning album, because for Ungar, “Ashokan Farewell” was the career equivalent of being struck by lightning.
“I feel like it was a gift of some sort,” said Ungar, in a recent phone interview from his home in upstate New York, of the tune that has opened more doors -- including a gig with the London Symphony Orchestra -- than a boy from the Bronx could ever have imagined.
Jay Ungar and Molly Mason will perform with the Family Band – featuring daughter Ruth Ungar and Michael Merenda, both talented multi-instrumentalists and singer-songwriters in their own right – on Saturday at 8 at the Clark Art Institute, as part of the museum’s “American Roots” series. For tickets call 413-458-2303, ext. 324.
Ungar grew up in New York City, but spent summers in upstate New York. “That’s where I knew my heart was. I knew I couldn’t live in New York as an adult,” he said. As a teen-ager he began listening to bluegrass and old-time music, and like several other of his urban peers – people like David Bromberg, Andy Statman and David Grisman – he was bitten by the rural music bug. He travelled south to North Carolina and Tennessee to hear the music played first-hand by traditional masters, and became part of what we call the “folk revival.”
In the meantime, Mason grew up in Washington in a family that played traditional music. Her father played mandolin and an uncle played fiddle. “It’s such a big world, and a lot I never heard, including bluegrass, until I was 12 or 13,” said Mason. “But fiddle music I grew up with, and my brother and I would play together as teens.”
Mason eventually found work in the house band for Garrison Keillor’s “A Prairie Home Companion” radio program. In 1980, Ungar began conducting a fiddle and dance workshop for adults and families at Ashokan in upstate New York. In 1982, after the end of the summer program, Ungar was in a melancholic mood and he composed a piece of music that reflected his sense of loss.
Months later, when he brought the still-unnamed tune to the band he was working with, Fiddle Fever, bandmate Mason suggested he call it “Ashokan Farewell.”
Several years later, Ungar got a call from filmmaker Burns, who asked if he could use the tune as the theme for his epic PBS series, “The Civil War.” The resulting film was a major cultural event, the soundtrack won a Grammy Award, and Ungar received an Emmy nomination for “Ashokan Farewell.”
Since that time, the song has taken on a life of its own. The daily mail brings lyrics that listeners have written for the tune from all over the world and testimonies about how the melody has affected them.
“I think of myself as the steward of this piece of music for the rest of my life, for how it is used and what happens to it,” said Ungar, who gets so many requests for permission to license his recording and from artists wanting to record it that he has set up a program on his website (www.jayandmolly.com) to make it easy for people to fill out the proper permission forms.
“It’s a mystery why it affects people that way,” said Ungar. “It’s hard to verbalize or get a scientific or earthbound answer. It doesn’t affect everybody, but for a certain amount of people it turns on a switch into a deep place.”
Ungar said that he occasionally gets letters or calls from people claiming that he consciously or unconsciously stole the melody from an old tune. One time, a very insistent correspondent claimed to have discovered a piano roll of Civil War-era tunes containing Ungar’s melody. Indeed, it did, but the piano roll was manufactured in 1993, and it included Ungar’s “Ashokan Farewell” with the composer’s permission.
Ungar has carefully analyzed the piece, and while a few notes here and there contain fragments of earlier melodies, he is confident that the piece as a whole is original. Whatever its origins, there is no denying that there is something incredibly poignant and timeless about the melody.
There is also something timeless about Ungar and Mason’s performances, on stage and on radio that ties them to an earlier era. They have been hosting “Dancing on the Air” for over a dozen years, and the program remains a vehicle for them to spend one evening a month with fellow musicians hanging out, having dinner together, and sharing music – a sort of electronic-age, front-porch picking party.
Mason spoke in almost mystical terms about the music they play. “There is something tremendously real about playing traditional music with other people face to face,” she said, “playing a tune you know has been around for two hundred years and people have danced to it and you bring it back to life and get some of the same feelings from it. It makes you feel connected.”
Ungar, who was drawn to traditional American music as a way to connect with a culture that was new or foreign to his family, says that it is the music’s non-commercial nature that explains its power to exert an emotional pull on an audience.
“The old music that has survived outside of the commercial environment has done so because it affects people, not because anyone has sold it to them or convinced them it’s valuable,” he said. “When people hear it, it has a positive connection.
“The doors that opened to us with ‘Ashokan Farewell’ also opened with the members of the audience. It gave them permission to appreciate something previously thought to be hackneyed, trite and out of date.”
[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on Jan. 18, 2002. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2002. All rights reserved.]
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