I knew I had never heard it at any re-enactments, or concerts. I was pretty sure I did not have it on a random CD of Civil War music. But it sure seemed as if I should have, somehow, somewhere, run across such a memorable composition. Several years went by, and I was teaching fifth grade. A colleague was discussing whether or not it was a good idea to show the Burns epic in class, or if it was too intense for 10-year olds.
The tune came rushing back to me, and I mentioned that maybe we could put together a collection of Civil War songs to play in class during the unit. My student teacher agreed to create such a project, and the next week he handed me his freshly burned CD. It contained all the good old stuff–”Goober Peas,” “Bonny Blue Flag,” “Dixie,” Marching Through Georgia,” . . . and “Ashokan Farewell.”
I asked him why it was included. He said that it was a Civil War song–wasn’t it? “If it was in that Ken Burns deal, isn’t it a Civil War song?”
No. No, it is NOT a Civil War song. There. I said it.
“Ashokan Farewell” is a waltz in D major written by Jay Ungar in 1982. Mr. Ungar and his wife, Molly Mason, currently perform with their daughter and Michael Merenda as the “Jay Ungar and Molly Mason Family Band.” By their sound and their choice of instruments, one would consider their music to be folk or bluegrass. They do sing mountain music, but also present many original compositions–including “Ashokan Farewell.”
This hauntingly beautiful song, written in the style of a Scottish lament, was chosen as the farewell song at the annual Ashokan Fiddle and Dance Camp, held on the campus of the State University of New York. It was also used in the television series Twilight Zone, in a 1986 episode entitled “Shadow Play.”
Ken Burns, with his excellent ear for appropriate music, heard the song in 1984 and immediately chose it for his PBS project The Civil War. It is used at least twenty-five times in Burns’s epic, most movingly, perhaps, as the backdrop for the reading of the text of Sullivan Ballou’s love letter to his wife.
Of the eleven hours of film Burns brings us in The Civil War, fully an hour is seen with “Ashokan Farewell” somewhere in the background. It is the only piece of music in the entire production that is NOT authentic to the period. Perhaps this is where the confusion comes in, and understandably so. Nevertheless, it is a modern piece of music.
Shoulda. Coulda. Didn’t.
Now you know.