In 1990, a documentary by Ken Burns called The Civil War was broadcast on American TV. Over and above the quality of the show as a great insight into that particularly disastrous war, there was a song played frequently on the soundtrack called “Ashokan Farewell.” It is so haunting and so evocative of music of that era that everyone assumes it was composed in the 1860’s.
But in fact, the song was composed by a folk musician named Jay Ungar in 1982. And the Ashhokan that they are bidding farewell to is that year’s Ashokan Fiddle and Dance Camp in upstate New York, maybe 100 miles north of New York City. (Near as I can tell, this event is still held.)
Per The Atlantic, “Ungar had traveled through Scotland earlier in the summer and he wanted to compose a tune in the style of a Scottish lament—something that would capture the sense of sadness that the camp, and all the camaraderie and community and joy it represented to him, would be ending. He wanted something more celebratory, too: “The tune,” he says, “was my attempt to get back to a feeling of connectedness.””
So here is “Ashokan Farewell,” a lament so beautiful and haunting that, by his own account, it brought its author to tears.