Ashokan Farewell

Over the past few months, I have developed an interest in traditional fiddle music, especially Northeastern and Nova Scotian styles. In my search for distinctive New York fiddle tunes (there's nothing like combining your great passions), I came across an Irish-style air entitled Ashokan Farewell.

Those of you who have watched Ken Burns' documentary "The Civil War" are probably familiar with this haunting melody, which played in the background for over an hour of the 11 hour documentary. If you haven't heard it, I suggest listening to this recording, though the midi file does no justice to what I feel is the most beautiful, mournful air ever written for the fiddle.

What surprises many people who watch the show is that Ashokan Farewell was actually written in 1982 by a New York fiddler named Jay Ungar. Jay describes the inspiration for the piece:

"Ashokan is the name of a town, most of which is now under the Ashokan Reservoir, a very beautiful and magical body of water that is across the road from our home...

I composed Ashokan Farewell in 1982 shortly after the summer programs had come to an end. I was experiencing a great feeling of loss and longing for the lifestyle and the community of people that had developed at Ashokan that summer. The transition from living in the woods with a small group of people who needed little excuse to celebrate the joy of living through music and dancing, back to life as usual, with traffic, disturbing newscasts, "important" telephone calls and impersonal relationships had been difficult. I was in tears when I wrote Ashokan Farewell. I kept the tune to myself for months, slightly embarrassed by the emotions that welled up whenever I played it."

The tune that he wrote is profound and an elegant metaphor for Ashokan itself, which was once a thriving little town in a deep Catskill valley. The press of modernity and the demands of the great City overwhelmed the tiny village's ability to defend itself and it was flooded to make a deep, dark reservoir. The same waters that Jay Ungar paddled over close to 70 years later. The song to me is more powerful because of that loss.

Ken Burns found the piece to be haunting and used it to convey the melancholy that the Civil War inspired within him. In particular, a version with a single fiddle (Jay) playing in the background is used during the reading of Major Sullivan Ballou's letter to his wife Sarah a week before his death at the battle of Bull Run. In the documentary, the reading of the letter with the tune in the background is a most powerful combination. The letter itself brings a tide of emotions even to the passive observer like myself. I have difficulty imagining what it would be like to be the beloved who received it. Such elegance, grace, intelligence and kindliness destroyed forever in a war started to defend the monstrous institution of human bondage.

The three stories, the town of Ashokan, Sullivan Ballou's tender letter and Jay Ungar's grief as he left the tranquil world of summer are intertwined in my mind. They are also a metaphor for what I believe I am struggling for in Upstate New York. Human beings can be so awful to one another. Sometimes, as the trio of reminiscences tells us, things that are good and beautiful and simple are destroyed in the name of progress. Around me my beautiful treasured homeland is, like so many other places on this earth, being swallowed and negated by the pressures of homogenization, development and short sighted "progress." This website, to me, is a place to mourn and remember the past, perhaps the most human of all activities. It is also a place where memories can survive, for we are like Mr. Ungar, paddling over seemingly placid waters that hide deep and beautiful secrets, writing a song to express what we cannot say. That song, our Ashokan Farewell, shows that the human spirit to create art and beauty, to love and, of course, to mourn can survive through it all for another day. Even in the darkest, grayest Upstate Monday in February, the dawn does come and someday the snow does melt and smiles do return. For as long as we can remember, we can also dream, we can hope and we can work to build something new and beautiful.

Your Friend,


Jon said...

Jesse -

I hate to burst a bubble, but I think the Sullivan Ballou letter may have been Ken Burns taking artistic liscence. I remember reading somewhere along the way that the letter was more like a "composite" of statements similar to those contained in many letters home.

Check it out, I might be wrong about this.

Jesse said...

I have also heard this, in fact, I found a site (http://www.sullivanballou.com/) that dissects the letters. They discuss the various versions of the letter, the stories surrounding Ballou, and the historicity of the letter. Myself having not seen the original documentation, have to leave this one to the historians to settle out, but abridged or unabridged, it is a powerful statement.
However, this brings up some good questions and the Ballou site begins with the quote: "Nobody changes history more than historians." I think whenever we, as students of history, examine documents and especially interpretations of the past, we must remember that they not only reflect the past, but also the historian/interpreter. Why select Ballou's letter from all of the hundreds of thousands that were written? Why abridge it? What was the abidger and the documentary maker trying to say or do with history? Is it a license we should give them? Where should we stop? It is inevitable that we see history from our own unique place in time, through the lens of the present, but how much are historians expected to be unbiased? I highly suggest the work of historian James W. Loewen, especially Lies Across America and Lies my Teacher Told Me and Howard Zinn's articles on history and its interpretation.