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Fiddler on the Move : The Haunting Theme Song From 'The Civil War' Has Thrust Jay Ungar Into the Limelight

November 24, 1990|JAMES F. PELTZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ken Burns, the producer of the acclaimed PBS documentary "The Civil War," recently had a fiddler named Jay Ungar over to his Walpole, N.H., house. Ungar and his friend, Molly Mason, were playing some music for Burns and his wife, when Burns asked to hear "Ashokan Farewell."

Not that Burns needed an introduction to the haunting, mournful song. "Ashokan Farewell," written by Ungar, was the theme song to the 11-hour "Civil War" series, which aired in late September and became the most popular show ever on public television. Some 14 million people tuned in to the initial episode.

Burns figures he's heard the song 2,000 times. Yet when Ungar and Mason played it in his house, Burns said he and his wife started to cry. "It is a remarkable piece of music," Burns said.

They weren't the only ones affected by the song, which was the sole piece of contemporary music in the series. Thousands of people have contacted Burns, the series' publicists, local PBS stations, music stores and Ungar trying to find a recording of the song or its sheet music, so that they can play the song themselves. One man in Georgia wrote Ungar that he bought a violin and began taking lessons just so he could learn "Ashokan Farewell."

"I've literally gotten hundreds of letters from people desperate to find that tune," Burns said.

As a result, Ungar, previously an obscure professional musician who lives in the Catskill Mountain village of West Hurley, N.Y., is suddenly in the limelight. "Nobody anticipated the interest that would occur," he said. "It makes me really happy that it's touched that many people."

It likely will also make him much wealthier. Because of the demand, Warner Communications' Elektra Nonesuch label plans to release the soundtrack of "The Civil War," including "Ashokan Farewell" and 27 other songs, on Wednesday. On the same date, radio stations will get a single of "Ashokan Farewell," and Warner's publishing unit is preparing the sheet music for mass distribution. (Ungar said he originally got $4,500 from Burns' production company for use of the song.)

The song previously was available on a 1984 album called "Waltz of the Wind," performed by a group named Fiddle Fever and distributed by Flying Fish Records. Fiddle Fever is an occasional band that includes Ungar, Mason and Russ Barenberg, among others.

When he listened to "Ashokan Farewell," Burns said he knew "it would be a fantastic piece of music for 'The Civil War,' " a five-year project that Burns was then just beginning to plan. "It contains all of the tragedy and bittersweetness that the Civil War speaks to us."

The version of the song that introduces each chapter of "The Civil War" is taken straight from the "Waltz of the Wind" album, but Ungar and his friends also played variations of the song and other music for the series.

Ungar, 44, composed the song in a couple of hours early one morning in 1982. He and Mason run a music-and-dance camp in the Catskills each summer at a place called the Ashokan Field Campus, which is owned by the State University of New York.

"It's difficult sometimes when these programs end to go back to the world of automobiles and telephones," he said. "I was feeling very sad from coming down from this wonderful experience and I started to express it musically, and this is the tune that resulted. I was actually in tears when I composed it."

Ungar, who lives with Mason and his 14-year-old daughter, Ruth, was born in the Bronx and started playing the violin at age 7. When he's not performing with Fiddle Fever, he and Mason join other musicians to perform in concert, at dances or as studio musicians for filmmakers such as Burns. He also hosts a live music show on an Albany, N.Y., radio station.

Ungar said he has trouble describing "Ashokan Farewell" in a word or two. "It has something about it that sounds like you've heard it before, and yet it's strangely different," he said. Ungar also isn't used to describing the song as a hit.

"It's not the sort of tune that I would have ever imagined would come out as a single," he said.

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