The story of Ashokan Farewell
Ashokan Farewell was named for Ashokan, a camp in the Catskill Mountains not far from Woodstock, New York. It’s the place where Molly Mason and I have run the Ashokan Fiddle & Dance Camps for adults and families since 1980.
Ashokan is the name of a town, most of which is now under a very beautiful and magical body of water called the Ashokan Reservoir. I’ve heard it pronounced a-shó-kun, a-shó-kan, or sometimes ásh-o-kán. The reservoir provides drinking water for New York City one hundred miles to the south.
The late Alf Evers, our local historian, once told me that the name Ashokan first appeared as a place name in 17th century Dutch records. He thought it was probably a corruption of a local Lenape Indian word meaning, “a good place to fish.” That it is!
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. I was having trouble making the transition from a secluded woodland camp with a small group of people who needed little excuse to celebrate the joy of living, back to life as usual, with traffic, newscasts, telephones and impersonal relationships. 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.
Ashokan Farewell was written in the style of a Scottish lament. I sometimes introduce it as, “a Scottish lament written by a Jewish guy from the Bronx.” I lived in the Bronx until the age of sixteen.
In 1983, our band, Fiddle Fever, was recording its second album, Waltz of the Wind, and we needed another slow tune. We tried my yet unnamed lament. The arrangement came together in the studio very quickly with a beautiful guitar solo by Russ Barenberg, string parts by Evan Stover and upright bass by Molly Mason. Now it needed a name. Molly suggested the title, Ashokan Farewell. It seemed right to me.
Filmmaker Ken Burns heard the album in 1984 and was immediately taken by Ashokan Farewell. He soon asked to use it in his upcoming PBS series The Civil War. The original Fiddle Fever recording is heard at the opening of the film, and this and other versions are heard twenty five times for a surprising total of 59 minutes and 33 seconds of the eleven hour series. Molly and I, along with members of Fiddle Fever and pianist Jacqueline Schwab played much of the 19th century music heard throughout the soundtrack. Ashokan Farewell is the only contemporary tune that was used.
– Jay Ungar