“Ashokan Farewell” // is a piece of music composed by the American folk musicianJay Ungar in 1982. For many years it served as a goodnight or farewell waltz at the annual Ashokan Fiddle & Dance Camps run by Ungar and his wife Molly Mason, who gave the tune its name, at the Ashokan Field Campus of SUNY New Paltz (now the Ashokan Center) in Upstate New York.
The piece is a waltz in D major, composed in the style of a Scottishlament (e.g., Niel Gow‘s “Lament for His Second Wife”). Jay Ungar describes the song as coming out of “a sense of loss and longing” after the annual Ashokan Music & Dance Camps ended. The most famous arrangement of the piece begins with a solo violin, later accompanied by guitar and upright bass. Another arrangement, featuring Ungar, Mason, and their family band, is performed with two violins, an acoustic guitar, and a banjo, with the piece beginning with a solo violin.
Before its use as the television series theme, “Ashokan Farewell” was recorded on Waltz of the Wind, the second album by the band Fiddle Fever. The musicians included Ungar and Mason. Ashokan was the name of a former village in the Catskill region that is now mostly covered by the Ashokan Reservoir.
In 1984, filmmaker Ken Burns heard “Ashokan Farewell” and was moved by it. He used it in two of his documentary films: Huey Long (1985), and The Civil War (1990), which features the original recording by Fiddle Fever in the beginning of the film. The Civil War drew the greatest attention to the piece. It is played 25 times throughout the eleven-hour series, including during the emotional reading of Sullivan Ballou’s letter to his wife in the first episode. The song underlies nearly an hour of film. Viewers of The Civil War frequently believe the melody is a traditional tune from the Civil War era; in fact, it is the only modern composition on the film’s soundtrack, as all other music is authentic 19th-century music.
In the wake of the success of the series and its soundtrack album, the track was released as a single by Elektra Nonesuch, backed with the “Sullivan Ballou Letter” recording featuring narrator David McCullough and actor Paul Roebling reading the part of Ballou. It subsequently received airtime on some country music-formatted radio stations, which was timely as the United States entered Operation Desert Storm. Elektra Nonesuch director of media relations Carol Yaple told Billboard magazine, “I think [‘Ashokan Farewell’] was the theme that people could sort of attach the series identity to. However… [the series’ music] is really all of the period. There’s nothing sexy or contemporary about it, really, except that it was attached to that series and is good music, certainly.”
Most recently, the song is used in the premiere of the television series Yellowstone.