The tune that saved the Ashokan Center

Above: The Jay Ungar and Molly Mason Family Band performs "Ashokan Farewell" at the Folk Alley studio in 2011.

You know the tune. The first two notes give it away. By the third note, it has you already transfixed in some haunting memory, whether you've heard it a few times or a few hundred.

In a recent feature, New York Times reporter Dennis Gaffney tells the story of how fiddler Jay Ungar's bittersweet "Ashokan Farewell" -- a modern composition with the soul of a Civil War ballad -- rescued the Ashokan Center in Olivebridge from the brink of oblivion

('Oblivion' being, in this case, New York City's watershed land acquisition program, which was poised to swallow the old SUNY New Paltz environmental education center until Ungar stepped in to broker a deal.)

As Gaffney tells it, the song and the Ashokan Center are inextricably linked. Ungar composed the tune at the Ashokan Center in 1982, at the end of a summer music and dance program on the property. Decades later, after Ken Burns' Civil War series swept Ungar and wife Molly Mason to fame, the tune helped get Ungar an audience with Gov. George Pataki about the future of the Ashokan Center. Gaffney reports:

...Mr. Ungar read a headline in a local paper, The Kingston Daily Freeman, that startled him: “Ashokan Field Campus Sold.” Mr. Ungar then heard rumors that a local logger was about to buy the land. Both stories proved untrue, but prompted Mr. Ungar to write a letter, with the White House program attached, to Gov. George E. Pataki, reminding him of a meeting between them in 1999.

Mr. Pataki remembered. He had been invited to speak at Gettysburg for a commemoration of Abraham Lincoln’s address. Mr. Pataki knew “Ashokan Farewell” from the Civil War series, and when he heard Mr. Ungar play the tune at the cemetery that day, “it choked me up,” Mr. Pataki recalled in a telephone interview. He also knew that Mr. Ungar had written the song in the Hudson Valley, which, he said, “isn’t just the mountains and landscape, it’s culture.”

Thanks to Ungar's efforts, a three-way arrangement was made in 2008 between New York City, the Open Space Institute, and the newly-founded Ashokan Foundation headed by Ungar and Mason. The deal provided funding for 24,000 square feet of new buildings on the campus to host the Ashokan Center's environmental and cultural education programs, while deeding most of the land to the city for protection from development.

Five years later, that deal has been transformed from ink and paper into boards and beams. On April 28, the Ashokan Center held an open house to invite the public to tour the new buildings, now complete.

At the center of it all: Ungar's deceptively simple tune, written not to commemorate the Civil War dead or the long-vanished towns drowned beneath the surface of the Ashokan Reservoir, but simply to express the bittersweet sorrow of leaving summer camp behind. Ungar writes in a FAQ about "Ashokan Farewell":

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.

Ashokan Farewell was written in the style of a Scottish lament. I sometimes introduce it as, "a Scottish lament written by a Jewish guy from the Bronx." I lived in the Bronx until the age of sixteen.