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; http://www.ashokandreams.com/gallery