Graduations at VCFA are always touching and beautiful, but the one on January 20, 2018 was made particularly poignant by a haunting piece of music played by graduates Allison Ritchie on violin and Jillian Fox on piano: Ashokan Farewell. It’s the tune that Ken Burns made famous in his PBS Civil War documentary. It tugged at the heart, background to the reading of the letter from Union officer Major Sullivan Ballou to his wife. Ballou knows he will die, and his anguish shows. The letter itself was found on his person and delivered to his wife after his death.
…”with my own joys,” Ballou wrote, “I lay down nearly all of yours…” He said that when his last breath escaped him, it would whisper her name.
It’s a complicated story, as is the story of the composition of that piece of music by folk musician and composer Jay Unger. The piece is titled in honor of a music and dance camp that Unger and his wife and musical partner Molly Mason have run in the area since the 1980’s. It’s also a tribute to the place in the Catskills where a dozen towns were flooded to create reservoirs, the Ashokan among them, to provide drinking water to New York City.
About composing this piece, Jay Unger writes:
I composed Ashokan Farewell in 1982 shortly after our Ashokan Fiddle & Dance Camps had come to an end for the season. I was feeling a great sense of loss and longing for the music, the dancing and the community of people that had developed at Ashokan that summer. I was having trouble making the transition from a secluded woodland camp with a small group of people who needed little excuse to celebrate the joy of living, back to life as usual, with traffic, newscasts, telephones and impersonal relationships. By the time the tune took form, I was in tears. I kept it to myself for months, unable to fully understand the emotions that welled up whenever I played it. I had no idea that this simple tune could affect others in the same way.
Unger calls it “a Scottish lament written by a Jewish guy from the Bronx.”
Purely by the kind of coincidence that you can’t make up if you try, the word Ashokan reverberates in quite a different way for me. It’s an adjective derived from the name of an emperor, Ashoka, who ruled almost all of present-day India in the 3rd century BCE. In the words of University of Hawaii history professor Jerry Bentley, following a bloody conflict, “Ashoka reflected on the war in Kalinga, which reportedly had resulted in more than 100,000 deaths and 150,000 deportations, ending at around 200,000 deaths.” Fron that moment, the legend goes, he gave up war, and dedicated the rest of his long reign to peace and the welfare of his people. Is that legend or reality? It was so long ago that the boundaries become permeable.
All those geographies and histories overlap and coalesce in this one tune. War and peace, sacrifice and the conflicting needs of people, and always time, stretching onward and over continents, all of it finding expression in stories.