Ashokan Farewell is one of my favorite songs of all time. I was first introduced to it my senior year of high school, when we sang it in choir. The video below is not my high school (we didn’t have YouTube back in those days :)) but the choir in this video is singing the arrangement we sung:
I fell in love with the song then, but interest in it gradually faded as I got involved with college and other happenings in my life. I’d say the interest picked up again sometime in the middle of my undergraduate years. I managed to find a wonderful vocal solo recording of the song, sung by Priscilla Herdman. And here is a video of an arrangement for piano:
I did some more research on the song. My high school choir director had told us that the song was used in Ken Burn’s PBS Series on the Civil War. I wanted to learn more! Where exactly was Ashokan, and was the song originally composed for the documentary? How did it fit in to the context of the Ken Burns documentary (which I haven’t seen)? I did some research, and here’s what I’ve picked up over the years.
It didn’t take long for me to find the website of Jay and Molly Ungar. The couple run a camp called the Ashokan Fiddle & Dance Camps for over 25 years. The camp is located in the Catskill Mountains, a picturesque natural refuge which is located Northwest of New York City, in the actual state part of New York (although closer to the southern part of the state). The camp is named for the Ashokan Reservoir, which in turn got its name from the Ashokan Village that was once located in the area. The term “Ashokan”, according to the Ungars’ site, could have derived from a possible Lenape Indian term meaning “a good place to fish.” This is fitting, considering that the village was located near the water
At the Ashokan Fiddle & Dance camp, people come together to learn, teach and play music and dance in a natural environment removed from the artificial constructs of modern life. Jay Ungar states on his site that he composed the song in 1982 to reflect the nostalgia and poignancy when the camp ended for the summer, and the reluctance of transitioning between the natural environment back to every day life. Fittingly, he wrote the song in the style of a Scottish Lament. It was originally composed for strings, guitar and upright bass. Jay’s wife Molly suggested the name “Ashokan Farewell.”
Ashokan Farewell was included in the album “Waltz of the Wind,” recorded by the Ungars and their band, Fiddle Fever. When Ken Burns got a hold of the album and heard that song, he was so moved by it that he included it in his 1990 Civil War documentary and also in an earlier documentary about the politician Huey Long (known as the Kingfish).
So, the Ashokan Farewell was not written during the Civil War nor was it written about the War itself. But I can see how it fits in with the civil war theme, especially when the lyrics are added in. There are two sets of lyrics for the song, written by Grian McGregor and Cleo Lane & John Dankworth. The McGregor lyrics are the ones I am most familiar with, but both sets fully capture the sense of longing for that precious time shared with a special individual, and the inevitable realization that that time must end. I don’t find it to be a sad song, necessarily. It’s poignant, yes, but to me it also invokes a feeling of reflection and willingness to remember the good times lest they fade away, with the hope of holding on to them — even if that hope resides only in dreams. It suggests that yes, we may part, but we are not parted forever as long as we hold on to the memories — and who knows, maybe we will meet again!
Ashokan Farewell is an inspiring, moving song that I enjoy listening to. Definitely gets the creative motor running. I especially love to turn it on when I’m driving on scenic roads (we do have some of them around where I live). If that song can transport me into the mindset of being far away from the hustle and bustle of every day life, then I can only begin to imagine how wonderful it must be to actually be there in the Catskill mountains, the very place that inspired the song.
Ashokan Farewell, performed by Jay and Molly Ungar:
* Photograph from Wikipedia.