American Music Rabbit Trail

American Music Rabbit Trail

Yesterday we watched this video of the American Civil War in 4 minutes (posted here by bearing)

This morning at breakfast I still had the music running in my head and I wondered aloud what the name of the tune is. We discussed Ken Burns and the way he used music in his documentary. The way that song has become associated with the Civil War and how we can almost hear the sad letter from a soldier being read slowly and solemnly as the song plays in the background. We also discussed the “Ken Burns effect” and how he’s changed the way documentaries are made.

According to Wikipedia, the song in question is called Ashokan Farewell and was composed by Jay Ungar in 1982. It has served as a goodnight or farewell waltz at the annual Ashokan Fiddle & Dance Camps that Ungar and his wife, Molly Mason, run at the lakefront Ashokan Field Campus of the State University of New York at New Paltz. Here’s Ungar’s FAQ page about the song. He says, “Ashokan Farewell was written in the style of a Scottish lament. I sometimes introduce it as, ‘a Scottish lament written by a Jewish guy from the Bronx.’ I lived in the Bronx until the age of sixteen.”

Here’s a video of Jay and Molly playing Ashokan Farewell. It has a little introduction by Jay, explaining the origin of the song:

The song is played 25 times throughout Burns’ eleven-hour Civil War series and underlies almost an hour of film. Ungar says, “Molly and I, along with members of Fiddle Fever and pianist Jacqueline Schwab played much of the 19th century music heard throughout the [Civil War] soundtrack. Ashokan Farewell is the only contemporary tune that was used.”

This conversation led to Dom opening up his computer and playing the song, naturally. Then he started playing more clips from the Civil War soundtrack including The Battle Hymn of the Republic.

(Not my favorite version of the song; but I can’t find the one I really like.)

Oh but those are some of the my favorite song lyrics of all time. Such poetry: “He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword…”

“Let the Hero, born of woman, crush the serpent with his heel,”

” In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
  With a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me:
  As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,”

If those don’t stir your heart….

Then, naturally, I had to look that up to find out its history.

According to Wikipedia, “The tune was written around 1855 by William Steffe. The first known lyrics were called “Canaan’s Happy Shore” or “Brothers, Will You Meet Me?” and the song was sung as a campfire spiritual.

Around 1860 a man in the Massachusetts infantry named Thomas Bishop wrote some lyrics about a fellow soldier whose name was John Brown. Subtle fun because he shared a name with the famous abolitionist. Those lyrics became one of the unit’s marching songs. This song was overheard by Mrs Julia Ward Howe during a review of the troops in Washington, DC who then wrote new words for the song. She writes,

“I went to bed that night as usual, and slept, according to my wont, quite soundly. I awoke in the gray of the morning twilight; and as I lay waiting for the dawn, the long lines of the desired poem began to twine themselves in my mind. Having thought out all the stanzas, I said to myself, ‘I must get up and write these verses down, lest I fall asleep again and forget them.’ So, with a sudden effort, I sprang out of bed, and found in the dimness an old stump of a pen which I remembered to have used the day before. I scrawled the verses almost without looking at the paper.”

Then, it was time to get ready for Mass. That’s enough exploration for one day.


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  • Looks like a great book from a fellow FUS alum with a foreword from my hubby’s favorite philosopher.  This will go on my “to buy” list for sure smile