By: Rick Landers
Recently, while at an open mic at ArtSpace Herndon, Virginia, one of the performers, Nicholas Black, pulled out his viola and played the 1982 composed tune, “Ashokan Farewell”, by Jay Unger and Molly Mason.
The plaintiff farewell is a beautiful instrumental that wrenches the heart, makes us ache, and was introduced to most of us by the Civil War television mini-series of Ken Burns, during a reading of a letter from Major Sullivan Ballou (U.S.) to his wife, Sarah.
Sullivan Ballou (March 28, 1829 – July 29, 1861) wrote the letter to Sarah a week before his death by a cannonball strike at the Battle of Bull Run, and it is forever seared into our collective memories by its beauty, and the underlying score of the “Ashokan Farewell”.
In the early nineties, the instrumental became my wife’s and my wedding song, and we hired a guitarist and violinist from the Shenandoah Conservatory in Virginia to perform it for our friends and family.
We would later see Jay and Molly play their now classic tune at a venue in McClean, Virginia, and it was as captivating as it was the first time we’d heard it played.
It seems the tune was inspired by an 18th century Scottish performer named Niel Gow (1727 – 1807). The story goes that upon the death of his second wife, Margaret Urquhart, Gow composed one of his best known tunes, “Niel Gow’s Lament for His Second Wife”.
And an often accompanying story suggests he put away his violin for ten years, which is most peculiar, if only because for most musicians that would be like living without oxygen.
After listening to Gow’s lament on violin a few times, I sent a note to the award winning guitarist, Matt Palmer, to see if he’d heard the 18th century tune.
Matt told me that he’d recorded the lament just two months before, then sent me a link to a video of him playing it, most exquisitely, as I’d expected.
“Ashokan Farewell” is reminiscent of the Gow tune, although certainly it’s more “in the style of”, than replicated. Such tunes are drawn from a songwriter’s musical roots, from places, from their innermost feelings, all while stirring a magical cauldron of notes, tones and emotions.
In the traditional fashion of folk music, the hand me down nature of a song’s journey moves without exactitude, and migrates more by the emotional weight of a composition passed down between kindred spirits, one generation at a time.