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Friday, June 1, 2018
Art & Entertainment ... History ... Music ...

It’s interesting how we humans respond to music. What’s the difference between music and noise? Not a lot, really. Is there something mathematical about it, something that can be put into a formula, something having to do with level of organization and complexity? Maybe it’s related to entropy (in an inverted fashion — noise has a high entropy, music has a lower entropy)?

Music is a matter of sound waves, fairly smooth sound waves, that change and interact in rather complex ways. Not all sound wave arrangements affect the brain in the same way, even when they seem like music (and not all people are affected in the same way or to the same degree). Some songs just seem to resonate with whatever is going on in the brain, with all of its complex electro-chemical patterns. When that happens, somehow you know it. (Perhaps the conscious brain itself operates something like an orchestra; when its many electro-chemical patterns are harmonious, life is good; when there is discord, you don’t have a happy audience). Other songs and noise patterns just don’t get this result.

The folk song “Ashokan Farewell” is an interesting example of a song that did a lot more than originally intended. “Farewell” was written in 1982 by folk musician Jay Ungar, intended as a closing ceremony song for the music festivals that Ungar and his wife, Molly Mason, run every summer in New York State. Unless you were a patron of their Ashokan Fiddle & Dance Camps, you probably would never have heard the song.

But in 1990, filmmaker Ken Burns, who somehow came across Ashokan Farewell, decided to use the tune as the theme song for his 11 hour PBS documentary on the Civil War. Burns’ Civil War series became extremely popular, and as a result, Ashokan Farewell also became well known. And no longer as a closing waltz for a fiddle festival in the Adirondacks, but instead as the theme song for the American Civil War. Even though Jay Ungar was not thinking about Bull Run and Antietam and Gettysburg and Appomattox when composing the Farewell, the brain of Ken Burns made the mental connection between whatever it is that Ungar’s song does to our minds, and the sorrow, confusion, irony and sense of loss that a careful study of the Civil War brings upon the soul.

Just to nail down the dissonance here between what Ungar originally intended and what Burns later recognized within Ashokan Farewell, here are some of the lyrics that Ungar intended to be sung when the Farewell was performed:

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.

Now, this is a fitting tribute to a wonderful week of making music in the green hills of Upstate New York in mid-summer, but it’s not on the same level as a quote from Abraham Lincoln, Robert E. Lee, William Tecumseh Sherman or Fredrick Douglas. Somehow, the music of Ashokan Farewell goes way beyond the intention of its lyrics, which today are seldom heard.

I would imagine that when Ungar and Mason first performed Farewell at their festivals, it must have taken on a lively tone. But now, in the post Ken Burns era, their performances are much more solemn and serious. This video of Ungar and Mason performing Ashokan Farewell (with the accompaniment of Jay’s daughter and her husband) shows just how aware they have become of the national purpose that their little dance ditty has taken on. Notice the expressions on every musician’s face here — almost like people at the funeral of a fallen leader, or a memorial service following a disaster (all of the terrible school shootings in the past decade come to mind).

So, thanks to Ken Burns, we have a tune that helps our nation to ponder the bittersweet but still confounding reality of the Civil War. And actually, it even goes beyond that. If you read the comments to the video cited above, you will notice that some people talk about using this tune at the funeral of a friend or family member (or perhaps even at their own funeral — see this comment and the responses to it, on a YouTube rendition by the Royal British Marine Band). In a way, the complexity and confusion that a close-up examination of the Civil War reveals can be scaled down to the circumstances of our own individual lives.

Going back to how songs affect the brain — for the most part, any particular “sound wave pattern” that is recognized as music will have different effects on different people. Some people like a tune, others don’t. When a song comes along that a lot of people seem to like, then it may become popular. For some people, an emotion is triggered by a popular song — but not always the same emotion in every person. But for Ashokan Farewell, its particular sound wave pattern seemed to affect a whole lot of people in a very similar way, and in a way that Jay Ungar did not suspect when he wrote the song. It took Ken Burns to “discover” the song and recognize that it would be a “hit” when paired to the complex and tragic story of the American Civil War.

As to myself — yes, I did and still do feel what Ken Burns anticipated when he chose Ashokan Farewell as his theme song for The Civil War. I have watched all of the series, and have done some additional readings on that war. And even though no war is as simple as might be explained by the political and military leaders involved, the Civil War is especially complicated. There was so much senseless suffering and loss, imposed by Americans against Americans. And yet . . . the cancer of slavery had grown and metastasized to such an extent within the American social and economic stratum that there was no way to end it without terrible bloodshed. Then there was the matter of preserving the union, which of course was used as the primary justification for the war as it was happening — freeing the slaves was not the main selling point justifying the great sacrifice that the Union made to pursue the war.

And the evils of slavery were not cited for the most part to condemn the renegade Confederate states and justify the great suffering that they encountered. It was as though this was a war “fought in denial” of its true cause and ultimate purpose. From a century and a half later, we could look at the bright side of the War — in the end, slavery was defeated and the Union was preserved. But there are so many dark sides too — for me, its the notion that this war was NOT preventable, that humans are just players in a bigger tragedy which cannot be avoided despite their best efforts. In fact, too often their best efforts help to feed the tragic outcome all the more. Is our species truly in control of its fate? A close consideration of the American Civil War tends to cast some doubt upon that notion (and feeds the growing pessimism that American will get through the Trump years without some form of costly civil conflict). And don’t forget the Roman Empire, which despite its incredible greatness, strength and accomplishment was brought low by endless civil battle and strife.

And yet — despite all the evidence that would lead one to a hopeless fatalism, life still seems worth living. And the Askokan Farewell captures that. The Civil War came to an end, much was lost; and yet, the nation, still imperfect but hopefully a little bit wiser, went on. It took an Abraham Lincoln to try to make some sense out of an awful tragedy and convince the nation to go on. So in a way, Ungar’s “Farewell” reflects the voice of Lincoln, and echos it even into the seemingly meaningless corners of our own lives. The desire by people to have Ashokan Farewell played at their funeral perhaps reflects a wish to express their reason for being, the meaning behind what their lives, even though life, especially in old age, often becomes a bundle of chaos and decay.

At the moment, I am not anticipating my approaching death; knock on wood, I think I have a few more years left. However, I am coming closer to the day when I will end my working career, when I will retire. For years, that seemed as though it would be a joyous occasion, something akin to a granting of freedom from slavery (not to make light of true oppressive slavery). And yet, as the time grows nearer, the more bittersweet it becomes. What did I accomplish with my productive years? What could I have accomplished but didn’t? I may never find the answers to those questions; whatever did or did not happen during my prime may never make absolute sense. But I do have a song to fit the mood — I hope to hear the Ashokan Farewell being played at some point during my last day of work. (Whenever that is.)

◊   posted by Jim G @ 10:43 pm      

  1. Jim, A few random, unrelated, and disparate comments (all adjectives of which I presume mean about the same) on this topic that covers a broad span of different things:

    A lot of music/songs are what might be called “strange” as to where/when they are used — having one meaning in one place and another meaning or purpose somewhere else. As to Ken Burns and his long documentary on the Civil War: I tried to watch it but never managed to see much of it. It was entirely too heartbreaking to watch. I’m sure the background music had a part in that; but the story itself was so sad, I just could not watch it.

    Recently (as in last year during the winter, I think), on PBS there was a program here called “Mercy Street” about a very large plantation-like home in Virginia (once again, I think it was in VA); as to the house it may have been an actual plantation home, (don’t know which)) that had been turned into a hospital for the wounded soldiers of both sides. Obviously, I never watched that much of it to get some very basic things straight. This program was about the first use of ether as an experimental drug to “put people out” during surgery. Once again, I was unable to continue watching the entire story; again it was so heartbreakingly sad I had to quit watching. Perhaps it too was the background music.

    But not necessarily: Some years ago I started to read a book on the Trail of Tears; again I could not finish the book – no music here – it was just too sad and awful to consider how human beings treated others badly.

    So I wonder if the music is the “thing” that turns on the emotions. If I had to give myself an answer, it would be “no”.

    Music has its own way of affecting the body and the emotions so that it almost makes the body move to its “feeling”, no words needed. I often think then music is not very much “brain”; it’s all body and/or emotions. Other times as in some jazz pieces by Miles Davis it is all “brain”, very intellectual. But it does seem to me that more often than not music appeals directly to the body and the emotions, no matter the lyrics.

    Lastly, if I may: You have a lot of years left to have a productive, useful, and happy life. All is not doom and gloom because you are beginning to approach older years. I read something years ago by Thomas Merton: Prophet in the Belly of a Paradox (from a chapter by James Fox) that may be appropriate re your “getting old” comment:

    “Do not depend on the hope of results. [regarding one’s work] . . . you may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results the opposite of what you expect. . . . struggle less and less for an idea and more and more for specific people [emphasis added] . . . . it is the reality of personal relationships that saves everything . . . .”

    No matter about results: Life is worth it, especially life lived in helping others. It’s so true and I like it. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — June 3, 2018 @ 11:19 am

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