I can’t tell you how this beautiful song haunts me.
Recently, the Thriller and I reached the end of Ken Burns’s epic docu-series The Civil War, which I’d seen 20-some years ago, but wanted to revisit. It was at the same time awesomely inspiring and crushingly sad. Americans inflicting such hideous, wholesale war violence on other Americans is, to us today, almost inconceivable. And yet, because it happened, we have been for the last 150 years spared a repeat performance. At no time in our relatively short history have we come so close to complete anarchy: something Abraham Lincoln feared most as he took office in 1860, facing the real threat of secession by southern states.
But back to the music. This beautiful tune threaded its way through all nine episodes, and became an expected, familiar backdrop to the many heartbreaking scenes of the war, depicted in countless photographs and actor-voiced testimonies from soldiers, politicians, family members and generals. A listener’s first impression would definitely be This is a tune from the Civil War era, but he would be mistaken. Ken Burns approached Jay Ungar, renowned fiddle player and performer of traditional American music, who’d written “Ashokan Farewell” in 1982, asking the musician if he could use it as a theme for the documentary, as the song had touched him deeply. Not only did Ungar give his permission, but he and his band played all the music heard in the nine-part series. “Ashokan” was the only piece in the film not from the 19th century.
If you close your eyes and listen, where does this song take you? Perhaps you’ve heard school choirs sing it over the years, as it’s been a popular “folk song” choice for many directors, with its simple melody and beautiful phrasing. Maybe you’ll immediately feel the sense of wistful longing — what I like to call a “pulling” sensation on the soul — in the song’s haunting simplicity. Regardless, I think you will find it a thing of beauty: something we need more of in this world.
This is how the film begins. I highly recommend you experience it in its entirety one day.