While they may not know the title or the composer, millions recognize Jay Ungar’s Ashokan farewell as the melodic centerpiece of the soundtrack for Ken Burns’s celebrated television series The Civil War.
Still fewer of those who love the tune realize that the title refers to a site that is now known as The Ashokan Center, an outdoor education, conference, and retreat located in the Catskill Mountains of upstate New York that Ungar—together with his wife and musical partner, Molly Mason—was using for summer traditional music and dance camps.
Decades after Ungar composed Ashokan farwell, and following his performance of it at the White House and in various U.S. ceremonial settings, Ungar managed to leverage its emotional connections in a successful effort to preserve the location and create a $7.25 million campus there dedicated to traditional music, Catskill history, environmental education, and local arts and crafts.
This according to “Catskill cultural center saved, and renewed, thanks to a fiddler’s tune” by Dennis Gaffney (The New York times 12 May 2013, p. A15).
Today is Ungar’s 70th birthday! Below, a performance with Mason and some friends.
Part of the Library of Congress’s American Memory series, Fiddle tunes of the old frontier: The Henry Reed Collection is a multiformat collection of traditional fiddle tunes played by Henry Reed of Glen Lyn, Virginia, recorded by Alan Jabbour in 1966 and 1967, when Reed was over eighty years old. The tunes represent the music and evoke the history and spirit of Virginia’s Appalachian frontier; many of them passed back into circulation during the fiddling revival of the later twentieth century.
The collection includes 184 sound recordings, 19 pages of field notes, and 69 transcriptions of Reed’s fiddling with notes on tune histories and musical features; an illustrated essay on Reed’s life, art, and influence; a list of related publications; and a glossary of musical terms.
Above, Reed with Bobbie Thompson (guitar) at the Narrows (Virginia) Fiddlers Contest, summer 1967. You can hear Reed playing Alabama girls give the fiddler a dram here.
The fall 2010 issue of Goldenseal, a magazine devoted to West Virginia traditions, is a Festschrift for the late senator Robert C. Byrd—as a fiddle player! Festschriften that celebrate politicians are fairly unusual, but it is even rarer for a Festschrift to honor a traditional musician.
Byrd learned traditional fiddling and singing when he was growing up in the mountains of Appalachia. He deployed his talents strategically in his early political campaigns, when he was known as “Fiddlin’ Robert Byrd”. He also performed for the Grand Ole Opry, and recorded an album that has recently been re-released by County Records.