More Musings on “Ashokan Farewell”

The Places “Ashokan Farewell” Has Taken Jay Ungar

I had to leave this story out of the New York Times piece I wrote about Jay Ungar’s bittersweet song, “Ashokan Farewell,” but I love it:

In the spring of 2006, Ungar and his wife, the musician Molly Mason, joined renowned flutist Sir James Galway in the East Room at the White House where they played “Ashokan Farewell” for then-President George Bush. The night prior to their morning performance, the couple stayed at the luxurious Hay-Adams Hotel, which has a view of the White House. They were in good company: Ethel Barrymore, Amelia Earhart, Sinclair Lewis and Charles Lindbergh once slept there.

But the couple had to skedaddle afterwards to drive north to a little opera house in Bainbridge, NY, in time for an evening performance for about a hundred people, where they again played “Ashokan Farewell.” That evening, they spent the night at an unstarred roadside motel. It wasn’t quite a mansion-on-the-hill to the shack-in-the-back migration, but almost.

But it didn’t bother Ungar in the least.

“There is something I love about having a life like that,” Ungar said. “We can taste different parts of what makes America, America.”

“Ashokan Farewell” Echoes A Scottish Song About Loss

As I wrote the New York Times article about Jay Ungar’s plaintive song, “Ashokan Farewell,” I wondered: Did the song’s feeling of loss have any relation to the hundreds of people forcibly moved off Catskill land in the early twentieth century to make way for the Ashokan Reservoir in 1917? It’s an assumption many have made because the song’s title includes the word Ashokan, the name of one of the half-dozen villages now submerged underneath that reservoir.

But Ungar wasn’t aware of that strand of local history when he wrote his melody in 1983. The song emerged the melancholy he felt after his summer music and dance camp had ended. To capture that feeling, he looked to Scottish music, the reason he sometimes introduces his song as “a Scottish lament written by a Jewish guy from the Bronx.”

But the lament Ungar evoked wasn’t generic. The song he had in mind was “Lochaber No More,” a traditional tune that had moved Ungar when he played it every night while touring with Boys of the Lough, the Celtic band, in the summer of 1982, a few months before he wrote “Ashokan Farewell.” That Scottish lament emerged from the British establishment’s removal of people from the Scottish highlands in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, called the Highland Clearances.

“So when I was composing ‘Ashokan Farewell,’ I was trying to get the same feeling,” Ungar told me. You might say “Ashokan Farewell” is a lament written near a forced Catskill relocation that was inspired by another lament about a forced Scottish relocation a few centuries ago. I asked him one more question: What exactly in the music evokes the loss?

It’s a mystery to Ungar. “There’s something coded in music,” Ungar said, “that we don’t scientifically understand.”

Does Jay Ungar Mind Playing “Ashokan Farewell” at Every Performance?

When Jay Ungar, the composer of the elegiac tune “Ashokan Farewell,” was younger, he played in a band called Cat Mother & the All Night Newsboys, which had a modicum of success in the 1960s, even touring with Jimi Hendrix for a stretch.

The band got as high as a #10 hit on national radio with its tune “Good Old Rock’n Roll,” a medley of fifties covers with an original chorus. Because of the hit, audiences wanted more fifties-sounding music from the band, the path Sha Na Na took about the same time. The band divided: some wanted to meet fans’ desire for fifties tunes, but most of the band wanted to stick with playing their originals. This latter group resented the fans who wanted them to play their hit.

“’Ashokan Farewell’ is the exact opposite experience,” Ungar told me of the tune he’s played many hundreds of times, sometimes more than once a day. “It’s my great honor and pleasure to play this song. Here’s the reason: I still connect to it. I have gotten hundreds of letters and emails from people saying the song figured in a transitional moment in their lives. It’s a healing experience . . .. I like to play it, and when I do, I think of them . . .. And it’s no trouble for me to do it.”