Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Ashokan Farewell

More than once in "Sundancer" and "Sundancer's Fairy Tale" I mentioned "Ashokan Farewell," a fiddle tune by Jay Ungar. It's very familiar to anyone who has seen Ken Burn's great documentary The Civil War, where it was the major theme. It's also the only modern piece of music Burns used in that miniseries; all other music is from the 19th century.

In this YouTube video, Jay Ungar talks about how he came to compose the tune, then he plays it accompanied by his wife Molly Mason.

Here's a version played by Mairead Nesbitt of Celtic Woman:

I'd heard the tune before it was used in The Civil War, most likely at the Old Songs Festival in Altamont, New York, which is perhaps an hour's drive north of Ashokan. Jay Ungar probably played at that festival, since it is local for him, although I don't specifically recall. I went to Old Songs every year except 1988 from 1985 to 2000. It's where I got my first bowed psaltery in 1987. I've learned to play "Ashokan Farewell" on it, although I'm sure I subject it to considerable folk processing. That's a fancy way of saying I don't play it exactly the way Jay Ungar wrote it, although if you heard it you'd probably recognize it. I sometimes think of my version as "Ashcan Farewell."

After I first posted this entry I clicked on the link for the Old Songs Festival just to be sure the link went to the proper place (it did). I spotted a link to a review of the 2008 festival by Nova Scotian Jeff Doran. There were a number of things I liked about his review aside from the memories it brought back. Like me in 1985, he got lost trying to find the festival site. He mentions doing a capella versions of "What Shall We Do with a Drunken Sailor?" to the tune of "Greensleeves" and vice versa. (Yes, it really works.) He also mentioned you can sing Robert Frost's poem "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" to the tune of "Hernando's Hideaway," something I hadn't encountered since it was mentioned a long time ago in one of the Whole Earth Catalogs.

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