“Ashokan Farewell” is a song that grabbed my soul years ago and has never let go.
By the way, it’s pronounced “uh-SHOKE-un”. I wasn’t sure until tonight. You learn something new every day!
I never saw the Ken Burns film entitled “The Civil War”, which originally aired on PBS as a mini-series in the fall of 1990. At some point, however, I did acquire a copy of the CD with the Original Soundtrack Recording from the show.
The first time I heard the song “Ashokan Farewell” (the third track on the CD), I was mesmerized. The lone fiddle that starts the piece has a hauntingly beautiful sound and feel. When the single guitar is added to the fiddle, the resulting sound is absolutely captivating.
I ran across a YouTube video in which Jay Ungar, the man who wrote the song, told the story of how the song came into being.
“Ashokan Farewell” is a tune that I wrote unintentionally, really. It was a moment of deep emotion, after the summer camps at Ashokan that we run each summer had ended. It was the third summer, and it was an experiment every summer, pulling this together. It had been such a deeply moving experience, the community of people. The feeling of unity that we had through music and being away from the regular world was so important to me, that when I had gotten home, I had a sense of loss and longing. I was looking for a Scottish lament that would express how I felt. I couldn’t think of one, so I just started playing, and this tune came out. It brought me to tears, and every time I played the beginning of it, for months afterward, I was brought to tears.
When my daughter Ashley died in 2001 at age 14, I wanted to put together a selection of special songs for her funeral that would be playing as people arrived and waited for the funeral to begin. I wanted songs with meaningful messages that related to Ashley or to the concept of a life cut short, as well as songs that I felt captured some of the emotions we were experiencing. The haunting strains of “Ashokan Farewell” came to mind immediately, and it was one of the songs we used. Every time I hear the song, it still stirs a flood of emotion within me. It has literally become part of the soundtrack of my life.