Misty Eyes and the Ashokan Farewell Waltz

Music has power — to elevate your mood, lower stress, and even improve your blood flow. Depending on the tempo and chord progression, music can calm one’s spirit or tug tenderly on your heartstrings. I was reminded recently of one melody that, for me, often prompts a search for Kleenex. 

Three notes and my eyes are misting.

Apparently, I am not the only one. A dear friend shared how she can only listen to the Ashokan Farewell Waltz when she is alone. This touching tune was played as her sister’s ashes were about to be spread over Lake Michigan, and even thinking about the song prompts her tears to flow. 

For me, listening to the Ashokan Farewell confirms the power of music to capture emotion and prompt an irresistible response, whether it be joy, laughter, or in the case of this haunting hymn, tears. 

You may not be familiar with the title, but the music is one I know you have heard before. The Ashokan Farewell was the unofficial theme song of the Ken Burns Civil War documentary first broadcast on PBS in 1990. The song is played 25 times during the five-part eleven-hour series. I found two heart-touching versions at the YouTube links below.  The first is a simple arrangement with violin and guitar that is beyond anything I can describe in words. 

Folk Alley Sessions and Ashokan Farewell

The second rendering is the most memorable. During Burns’ documentary, the song is background music to the reading of a letter written by a soldier to his wife on July 14th, 1861. As Major Sullivan Ballou of the 2nd Rhode Island Volunteers is about to face his first battle, he writes an impassioned letter to his wife, Sarah. A week later, Major Ballou dies during the First Battle of Bull Run. If you don’t have a hanky handy, I suggest getting one. 

I consider it one of the most passionate love letters I have ever read or heard.  

The Reading of the Sullivan Ballou Letter

Anyone listening to this broadcast would swear the song was a period piece. Its bittersweet lament seems a perfect match to the Civil War era. Not so. And that is the rest of the story.

American folk musician and composer Jay Ungar and his wife conducted summer music and dance camps in the Hudson Valley of New York State in the early 1980s.  Wanting to write a song that reflected his melancholy at the closing of the camp season, Mr. Ungar crafted this melody in September of 1982.  He expressed concern about playing it as he always started crying after the first three notes.

I know the feeling.

But play it, he did, and it soon found its way onto the second album recorded by Mr. Ungar’s band “Fiddle Fever.” Ken Burns loved it and chose it as the only non-period piece to include in his Civil War documentary soundtrack. Since then, Mr. Ungar has played the song all over the country, including at the White House and a Gettysburg memorial service. At Gettysburg, then New York Governor George Pataki was so moved by it that he ultimately had 374 acres of the Catskill property — where the song was written — deeded over from the state of New York to the Ashokan Center.

The lyrics capture the essence of this mournful yet hopeful melody.  It is at once a charming reflection on the beauty of dance while still offering the hope of eternal love. The first two stanzas read:

The sun is sinking low in the sky above Ashokan.

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.

My thoughts will return to the sound of your laughter,

The magic of moving as one,

And a time we’ll remember long ever after

The moonlight and music and dancing are done.

Mr. Ungar has acknowledged receiving hundreds of letters from people touched by the song. For them, the Ashokan Farewell is far more than just a Scottish-themed lament; it has become a healing experience. Words may touch the heart, but I sometimes think it is the music that ultimately warms the soul. Now played as the farewell waltz at the Ungar’s annual music camp, this lament has become a serenade of hope reflecting both a remembrance and a longing of the heart.  

And like a warm blanket on a cold winter’s evening, embracing the Ashokan Farewell allows your heart and soul to savor the joys of the past while yearning for more yet to come.

And who said a waltz was just another dance? 

Note: Thanks to Joel Wyncotton on Unsplash.com for use of the photo.

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  1. cindy d

    Thank you for sharing the story of the General and the song. Yes it does make you tear up.

    cindy d

    Sent from my iPhone



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