The inaugural concert of the Summer Sounds series Saturday night, sponsored by the Center for the Arts in Manassas and Micron, featured eclectic musicians Jay Ungar and Molly Mason, who acquitted themselves well during an hour and a half set accompanied not only by the fiddle, guitar, mandolin and piano they played but also by Amtrak train, passing fire truck, and slow rollers on Center Street with their radios turned up.
Ungar and Mason are well-known to roots musicians, fans of the blues, fiddle tune devotees, eclectic music lovers and hack guitarists like myself. Their songs spanned the gamut from aforesaid fiddle tunes to Civil War songs to Stephen Foster songs to offerings as diverse as a Bob Wills medley, Fats Waller’s “Ain’t Misbehaving,” Hank Williams’ “I Can’t Help It If I’m Still in Love with You,” “Relax Your Mind” by Leadbelly, a neat number called “Home-Grown Tomatoes” and Jay’s signature fiddle piece, “Askokan Farewell,” which he wrote in 1982 and took on a life of its own. They sang in clear, warm voices which put the crowd of about 200 at ease and soon had them singing, clapping and even dancing along.
“Ashokan Farewell” was used as the title theme of the 1990 PBS television mini-series, The Civil War, directed by Ken Burns. The song is a haunting, haunted waltz in the style of a Scottish lament. The most famous arrangement of the piece begins with a solo violin, later accompanied by guitar.
“Ashokan Farewell” was recorded on Waltz of the Wind, the second album by the band Fiddle Fever, which included Ungar and his wife, Molly Mason. It has served as a goodnight or farewell waltz at the annual Ashokan Fiddle & Dance Camps that Ungar and Mason run at the lakefront Ashokan Field Campus of the State University of New York at New Paltz.
The Civil War drew the most national attention to the piece. It is played 25 times throughout the eleven-hour series, including during the emotional reading of Sullivan Ballou’s letter to his wife. If you are not familiar with this letter or moment from the mini-series, it may be heard at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HxDP6q6C5mE&NR=1. Warning: have a box of tissues on hand. Sullivan Ballou was killed at the First Battle of Manassas and buried for a time in the Sudley Methodist Church graveyard.
Viewers of The Civil War frequently and erroneously believe the melody is a traditional tune that was played at the time of the Civil War. In fact, it is the only modern composition on the Burns documentary’s soundtrack; all other music is authentic 19th-century music.
Jay Ungar and Molly Mason’s concert started the Sesquicentennial Commemoration of the beginning of the Civil War, with events the rest of the year. If they’re all as good as this concert we’ll be very fortunate indeed.