It took Catskills fiddler Jay Ungar less than an hour to write "Ashokan Farewell," a haunting fiddle tune that has become an iconic folk song covered by legions of fans and memorably used by Ken Burns on the soundtrack of his documentary "The Civil War."
In a story published on Friday, Sept. 25, the Atlantic magazine interviewed Ungar about the origin of the tune, which he wrote in 1982 to commemorate the end of a summer arts camp called Ashokan that he was running with his wife and partner, Molly Mason. (Ungar and Mason still run dance and fiddle camps at the Ashokan Center, in Olivebridge, today.)
The song is a thoroughly Catskills tune, the story notes. It was named for the Ashokan summer camp, as well as the Ashokan Reservoir in Ulster county and the drowned town of the same name beneath the reservoir's waters:
[I]t was created in the style of a Scottish lament—and in celebration of a town, and a reservoir, in upstate New York. By a guy from the Bronx.
According to the article, "Ashokan Farewell" wrote itself:
While “it’s a bit hard to remember now, because it’s been 30 years,” [Ungar] notes, he does remember that the writing of “Ashokan Farewell” “wasn’t a long process—maybe in the first 20 to 40 minutes, I had most of it." ... Which is not to say that the writing process was strictly a matter of craftsmanship. The emotion that comes through in the final version was there for Ungar, too. “In writing it,” he says, “I was in tears, but I didn’t know why, or what was happening.” There was a kind of “tingling feeling,” he remembers, as the song took shape in his mind and on his fiddle.