Wangaratta, October 2019
Songs have had an emotional effect over the years and even more so for me now, the power of words strung together a certain way along with the accompanying music is a powerful and a good thing. As a songwriter you must be doing something right when you make people cry, I have always thought.
I never really had the same kind of response to just a piece of music (without lyrics) until recently. It’s a tune that I have heard before and even played guitar along too, although on reflection, rather poorly.
Ashokan Farewell is familiar to many in the world of folk music, a fiddle tune written by Jay Ungar back in the early 1980s. It became more popular and more widely known some 10 years later when Ken Burns used it in his ground-breaking documentary about the American civil war.
The tune became somewhat controversial for a time, as some so-called experts concluded that Ungar could not have written the piece and that he must have stolen it from some long lost manuscript. Ungar himself began to wonder if he inadvertently had been guilty of plagiarism. All the controversy settled down in the long run and the tune, written as a tribute to the Ashokan music camp (which Ungar founded in New York State in 1980), has become known the world over.
I sat down at the table to take a load off and have a cuppa and decided to listen to the radio. Radio National’s Music Show was on and I tuned in. The show featured the musical duo and couple Mike and Ruthy. Mike Merenda and Ruth Ungar were interviewed and the opening song they performed, Bright As You Can, was great. They closed the segment with a performance of Ashokan Farewell, Mike playing the guitar and Ruth on the fiddle. It was so beautiful and moving that tears flowed. For a time I was transported to a place that’s hard to explain. It was sublime, an experience one might call spiritual. Confirming even an atheist can be touched by the unknown.
There’s a part of my brain that responds more intently now than before. Medical people have told me that a brain injury can do that. While at times it can be embarrassing, as tears can flow at the drop of a hat, I have adapted and started to embrace the positive things it has brought. A deeper listening experience for one.
Ruth, before she and Mike performed the tune, talked a little about it, how it paid for her way through university and how her dad is still surprised after all these years with its success.
She talked about meeting a street performer in Scotland and how performing Ashokan Farewell on his fiddle always brought the best money. “My dad would be so pleased,” she said.
She spoke about how her dad refers to himself as a Jewish American from New York who wrote this Scottish lament. She said she had to learn how to play the lead part of the tune after years of playing the harmony part with her family. It is so popular among fiddle players that when she started to run workshops around the world she had to play it and they always close a workshop session with the tune.
Over the years I have heard Ashokan Farewell played on a variety of instruments – fiddle, accordion, guitar, and a friend plays it on harmonica. (He even bought a specially tuned harmonica just to play this piece.)
Ruth Ungar does a great job, I’m sure her dad would be happy and proud.
The RN Music Show interview.
Postscript: Jay Ungar, now 73, is still playing and has a run of dates on the East Coast of the US in January 2020.