Does the American Civil War Need a Theme Song?

Ashokan_3822252 Like so many, I have been captivated by the mournfully lovely tune “Ashokan Farewell.” I am sure most of us first heard it when we were watching Ken Burns’s The Civil War, and wondered about it.

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.”AF sheet music

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.”Jay Ungar & Molly Mason

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.Ungar,+Jay+-+Ashokan+Farewell,+for+Violin+and+Piano++Published+by+Mel+Bay+_L

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.


5 Responses to Does the American Civil War Need a Theme Song?

  1. Interesting. I have loved the song ever since seeing the Burns series. I’m sad to hear that it is not “period,” especially since it was played so much throughout the show. However, it is still a beautiful song and does seem to capture the period well. Thank you for the clarification.

    1. Thanks yourself! There is, still, such an eerie feeling to the song–I think Ungar “channelled” it from the 1860s. I have heard so many arguments about its origin that I just decided to investigate it myself.

  2. Ashokan is actually located really close to where I am from in NY. In fifth grade we even went there for a week long camp. I’ve met Unger & Mason and heard them play this live; it is amazing, and they were a really nice couple.

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