Ashokan Journey

If you’ve heard the first word in the title of this post at all, you’ve probably heard it associated with a different word: “Farewell.”

Many people know the piece, Ashokan Farewell, as the haunting theme on the soundtrack of Ken Burns’ documentary, The Civil War. But it is not actually from that era. It was composed by fiddler Jay Ungar in 1982, in the Catskills of New York. About the tune’s origins, he writes:

I composed Ashokan Farewell in 1982 shortly after our Ashokan Fiddle & Dance Camps had come to an end for the season. I was feeling a great sense of loss and longing for the music, the dancing and the community of people that had developed at Ashokan that summer . . . 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.

I also heard the piece first in the context of fiddling. It’s an accessible, beautiful piece that can be played well by adult amateurs, and when I went back to the violin as an adult, I was looking for that. I needed a go-to when people found out and asked me to play something for them. That question had been embarrassing when I was a kid: I never had anything ready, and always demurred. It was part and parcel of my shyness and performance anxiety. I wanted to get over that. What I didn’t expect when I ordered the sheet music online and took it to my violin lesson were the opportunities to perform it that would soon present themselves.

This week the Monday Music Medicine Show asks for a piece of music that takes you on a journey. Ashokan Farewell has been part of my musical journey for a while now. When I first read it, I thought the name Ashokan was pronounced with an accent on the first syllable; it brought to mind ashes to ashes. The story behind the Ashokan reservoir itself is one of towns drowned to gather water for the residents of New York City: the Catskills’ own Atlantis.

As a farewell, a lament, the piece worked well in church. One summer I wrote and delivered a lay service about Faith Communities: Virtual and Real. In it I talked about four people I’d gotten to know, and then lost, in online communities that had become as real and meaningful as any in-person group. I said goodbye to them by playing Ashokan Farewell as a musical meditation in the service. Later that year, the long-time conductor of the orchestra I was in retired, and I played a string quartet version of the piece with three friends at his farewell party. I re-capped the solo performance the following year at our church talent show. And when I left the Boston area myself last summer, to move here to California, my string quartet friends played it for me.

Since moving to California, I’ve been looking around for a new musical home. One place I have found it is another online virtual community called ASVF, a group for Adult Starters Violin/Fiddle. One of the projects that ASVF has going on is for members to learn a fiddle tune a week and post it to the group. One of last week’s tunes was none other than Ashokan Farewell. The journey continues.

My church talent show performance from 2014:


Featured Image Credit:  Ashokan High Point Mountain, South Mountain, the Catskill High Peaks reflected in the Ashokan Reservoir;

16 thoughts on “Ashokan Journey”

    1. It’s in the style of a Scottish lament, according to the composer. I bought a book of Irish fiddling tunes several years ago when I was in Ireland, and I enjoy playing those. I don’t quite have the style down–too classical–but it’s fun to try.

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  1. This is such a beautiful piece, Karen! And it is quite familiar, though I’m wracking my brain about where I first heard it. I’m sure it might have been in another sound track. I’m on a journey to find it.

    You’ve done a wonderful rendition of it yourself! Thank you for sharing this at the Monday Music Medicine Show!

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      1. No, I have not seen it. Which is why I wonder why I know this piece. It does remind me of music I’ve heard recently connected with Scotland. But I am certain it is something I have on a CD soundtrack. somewhere.

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  2. This piece was one of the earliest I picked up “on my own”–that is, not recommended by my instructor–back when. Terrific for demonstrating how beautiful fiddle playing can be. Thanks for sharing your lovely performance.

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      1. I played for a while some time back; took it up when my son was young. Had to stop due to arthritis in my hand, from an old injury. I played more classical than folk/country, but loved both.

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  3. I am familiar with that piece from watching The Civil War as well. It’s very beautiful. You played it beautifully. It kind of always reminded me a little of something from the movie “Cold Mountain.” Really good post.

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  4. Beautiful. I’ve always loved Ashokan Farewell, from the moment I first saw The Civil War. My husband and I not only bought the Civil War soundtrack, but The Best of Fiddle Fever, the group Jan Ungar belongs to, which also featured Ashokan Farewell. The melancholy always tugs at me, but especially today, when I have had to take part in taking care of my mother, the emotions have hit. Your rendition is beautiful. Thank you for posting.

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  5. Thank you for that, Karen. I know the piece well and love it. Over the 20 years that I lived in NYC, I often traveled past the reservoir to visit a friend. And about two years ago I spent a couple of nights at the camp, where my niece got married. It was a beautiful ceremony and a significant memory. You captured the sad beauty of Ashokan Farewell.

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