Jay Ungar: Ashokan Farewell
Today’s blog is going differ from all the others as this is a tribute post for someone who taken from us far too soon – our Bryony. Life is incredibly precious, and it’s important to remember how fragile we really are. So I hope some of you can find comfort in this piece if you’re also remembering Bry today, and if not I hope you can also enjoy this wonderful piece of music.
Jay Ungar was born in 1946 in the Bronx. He is primarily known as a folk musician and composer and he is certainly best-known for his lament, Ashokan Farewell. Ungar married fellow folk musician, Molly Mason in 1991, where they continue to still write and perform together. They perform with their band, Swingology and popular folk-rock band, The Mammals.
Ashokan Farewell was named after a town under the same name. The purpose was also for a camp named after the town, which is up in the Catskill Mountains, New York. There both Ungar and Mason have run their Ashokan Fiddle and Dance Camps for families, which began in 1980. Ungar has written that he composed Ashokan Farewell in 1982, when the Ashokan Fiddle and Dance Camps had come to an end for the season. Ungar say this about the composition process of the work:
“I was feeling a great sense of loss and longing for the music, the dancing and the community of peopple that had developed at Ashokan that summer. I was having trouble making the transition from 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. 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 affect others in the same way.”
The piece now serves as a goodnight or a ‘farewell’ at the end of the seasonal camps. The work is also famous for its appearance in the television series, The Civil War. Due to this Ashokan Farewell is also sometimes thought of as a Civil War tune. The work is most-famously known as an instrumental (which is what this blog will be discussing), however there is a version with lyrics and below are the words which give a sense of what this music is all about:
The sun is sinking low in the sky above Ashokan.
The pines and the willows know soon we will part.
There’s a whisper in the wind of promises unspoken,
And a love that will always remain in my heart.
My thoughts will return to the sound of your laughter,
The magic of moving as one,
And a time we’ll remember long ever after
The moonlight and music and dancing are done.
Will we climb the hills once more?
Will we walk the woods together?
Will I feel you holding me close once again?
Will every song we’ve sung stay with us forever?
Will you dance in my dreams or my arms until then?
Under the moon the mountains lie sleeping
Over the lake the stars shine.
They wonder if you and I will be keeping
The magic and music, or leave them behind.
There are two famous instrumental versions of Ashokan Farewell. The first is with a solo fiddle, guitar and double bass, with the solo fiddle beginning the piece alone. The second features Jay Ungar & Molly Mason Family band, which uses a solo fiddle, a second fiddle, guitar and banjo (the piece still has the same layout structurally).
The piece begins with the solo fiddle playing a slow waltz around the key of D major, which is in the style of a Scottish lament (and this stylistic feature carries through the whole piece). Now because this is folk music, not one recording is the same due to interpretation, so I am going to talk musically about the family band version which I will link at the bottom of the blog. I find that this opening statement from the solo fiddle gives us vivid images of what Ashokan is like as a place, the weather that graces that land and the kind of people who go there.
The melody incredibly kind and sorrowful, yet still full of hope. After this solo, the guitar joins the solo fiddle with a chordal accompaniment, which shadows the basic harmonic progression of the soloist. Once this is established, the banjo and second fiddle join, which creates a warm atmosphere. The solo fiddle soars over the top with the introductory melody. This then drops out to let the guitar take a solo which is based on the Ashokan melody.
There is a moment when the guitar and solo fiddle come together and play the melody together, which creates unity and peace within the work (which is exactly the point of the composition!). Both fiddles then play the melody together, with the guitar and banjo acting as accompanying instruments. There is a beautiful section that slows down slightly, where the instruments of the band come together on a tonic chord and the piece ends quietly.
Although short, this piece is incredibly powerful and I could honestly listen to that one melody all day. Ashokan Farewell has become one of the most famous folk tunes to play, and has been arranged for a wealth of different ensembles, however my favourite is definitely by the Family Band.
Bry was loved by everyone, bringing laughter, happiness and vibrancy to whatever she put her mind to. She was an incredible horn player (though she never believed that!) and she absolutely adored music and the joy it can bring. So this is why this is for her, because she loved music, and found comfort in playing/listening/learning about music.
She inspires me to keep going everyday, and reminds me how important it is that life must keep going. I love you fiercely and forever, Bryony – I’m sure our paths will cross again, and when they do I will make sure I have my trumpet with me so we can have a play! This farewell is only temporary.
Ⓒ Alex Burns