From emotions and experiences, to memories, anecdotes and histories, music encapsulates many aspects of the human experience. The folk piece, “Ashokan Farewell,” composed by Jay Ungar, harbors a multitude of these purposes at once, expressing a hopeful yearning marked with twinges of heart-wrenching nostalgia. Among the simplistic beauty and optimism found in it’s repeated melody, an underlying sadness prevails throughout, washing over the listener with a moving sense of sorrow and longing. Originally featured in Ken Burn’s 1990 documentary, The Civil War, “Ashokan Farewell” not only illuminates a grieving tale of love and incomparable loss but also casts a spotlight on our nation’s past. The song offers valuable insight about the Civil War, a turbulent era in American history. The listener, although intrigued and maybe even distracted for a moment or two by the musical charm, harshly remembers the seriousness “Ashokan Farewell” outlines. With this reminder comes an overwhelming feeling of tragedy as the realization emerges that this piece is exactly what it’s title suggests: a farewell, a cutting loss, and a lamentation that can only be reversed in another life.
Starting off, a solitary violin gracefully enters the silence with nothing but a matching harmonic line to accompany it. Nothing about this initial section, or even the piece in general, is overly ornate or elaborate and very purposefully so. It is through this slow, simplistic voicing that the vulnerability of the solo violin can instill a haunting quality in the melody as the stage is set to accommodate Ashokan’s gravity and overall message. The violin, although traditionally known in classical music for it’s daring bravado, surrenders this reputation and takes on a more humble tone and character. As a result, the listener is whisked away to an era reminiscent of the old American South where fiddles and simple folk music were paramount in everyday life. Replicating this, the violin embraces its country roots and presents a tune full of soul and heartiness that remains throughout the entirety of the piece. The melody itself harbors very few intricacies, allowing the listener to experience the raw, Southern croon without lavish disturbances. Anything more would simply retract from its emotional weight. Despite this section’s lack of instruments, the tone still proves to be wholesome, and the soloistic aspect actually compliments this by allowing the violin to freely push or pull the tempo and “sing” the melody as intended. Not long after the solo ends, the melody repeats itself with a new, underlying guitar providing stability and flow for the lyrics to rest upon. The violin still sings out in mourning as the tune conjures images of a rustic 1860’s civilization, but this time the guitar’s steady tempo brings serenity to the once lonely and isolated violin solo.
Unbeknownst to most listeners, “Ashokan Farewell” actually features lyrics to further illustrate this sentimental tale of parting. The lines contain vast spurs of natural imagery as the speaker, painfully aware of their impending departure, recalls upon familiar surroundings in the hopes of creating security. However, he eventually comes to terms with his fate as even “The pines and the willows know soon we will part / There’s a whisper in the wind of promises unspoken / And a love that will always remain in my heart.” The speaker fervently combats sadness with the optimistic hope of eternal love, but at times uncertainty arises in the form of questions when he asks:
“Will we climb the hills once more?
Will we walk the woods together?
Will I feel you holding me close once again?
Will every song we’ve sung stay with us forever?
Will you dance in my dreams or my arms until then?”
These questions, although they painfully assume the worst, encapsulate the harsh realities of love and separation in a wartime era with soldiers unsure of their return and final goodbyes achingly needing to be exchanged. Uncertainty of the future certainly makes a powerful appearance in the speaker’s words. However, nostalgia for the past prevails regardless as the singer never relinquishes his precious memories of “climbing,” “walking,” “holding,” and “singing.” even as he questions what the future will bring. Among the undeniable bouts of sorrow these lyrics hold, it must be noted that the very opening line presents the image of a “sun sinking low” thus not inferring an ultimate end but rather the completion of another day, with a new one readily seeking to take its place. For this singer, the unknown lies ominously ahead, yet images of a new dawn, togetherness, and an “always remaining” love fuel his faith that reconnection is possible, if not soon, then someday. The impact of this speaker’s words are portrayed mainly through the instrumentation of the violin. Acting as the prime “voice” to a personless ballad, this instrument is able to “sing” the lyrics instead of simply playing their tune. To do so, the violin noticeably glides to each chord and note, a feature characteristic of folk music, and injects the melody with humanly passion and emotion that typically only a singer could achieve. This lyrical sequence does not last long throughout the course of the music, and a hearty accordion soon enough enters the mix to deliver the piece’s bridging section.
Progressing from solo violin to the saturated voices of guitar, accordion, and flute, each repetition of the chorus proves more powerful and triumphant than the next. The once simple melody gravitates towards a chorus of melancholy voices, and the sentiment intensifies each time instruments join in and thicken the timbre. Unlike before where just a single story of departure was illustrated by the lone violin, the music stirs and swells to the point where an entire ensemble sings the same aching song together. The listener soon comes to realize that these lyrics do not just tell the story of one voice, but the voices of thousands who were forced to say “farewell” to loved ones at the hands of the battlefield. It is here, with the culmination of all of the instruments, that the piece climatically embraces its full brunt of emotion, joining in unison all of the cries of anguish that make up this historic narrative. Finally winding down towards the end, “Ashokan Farewell” symbolically digresses the same way that it began: a solo violin straining one final chord this time as if it were emitting its final, earthly breath.
“Ashokan Farewell” The Civil War. By Ken Burns, Geoffrey C. Ward, and David G. McCullough. Prod. Ric Burns. PBS, 1990. TV Series.