A musical lament in Ken Burns’ “The Civil War”is the closest the traditional music world has had to a top 40 hit. Fiddler Jay Ungar’s mournful, Scottish-style “Ashokan Farewell” provided a moving backdrop to the 11-episode documentary released in 1990, and its popularity led to its publication as sheet music and its performance around the country for weddings and funerals. A wealth of traditional tune books are out there, more than you would imagine, but, until “Ashokan,” a single traditional tune in sheet music existed only on the list of mythological creatures alongside the ram with the golden fleece.
“Ashokan Farewell” took me prisoner just as it did thousands of viewers, and it remains a part of my repertoire to this day, a gorgeous melody I never tire of playing. When I play it I often encounter people who think it dates to the 1860s and our defining national conflict, but it does not. Ungar wrote it in 1982 in honor of his wistful memories of the Ashokan (New York) Music and Dance Camps, where he taught. Much of the emotional impact of the tune arises from its use as background music to a lyrical, prophetic letter written July 14, 1861, by Sullivan Ballou to his wife and read by Paul Roebling on the show.
That use of actors reading the writings of historical persons was one of many groundbreaking documentary techniques Burns pioneered, dividing documentaries into “BKB” and “AKB” — Before Ken Burns and After Ken Burns. BKB documentaries usually employed a narrator reciting information, but Burns brought to his shows a multitude of voices that helped to bring history to life. Burns also introduced the idea of sound effects to accompany photos and a camera that zooms and pans those photos, making you swear you see movement in images captured in the 1860s. Burns interviewed scholars who brought animated enthusiasm to their subjects, and he used long, deliciously slow shots that allowed the viewer plenty of time to imbibe an image, a stark contrast to today’s annoying rapid-fire, multi-image assault.
Finally, he made music a character equal in importance to the narration, consultants and photos, and he said in the special features to “Mark Twain” that the filmmakers edited the film while the music played, the reverse of the normal movie-making process, where the composer writes the score and conducts the orchestra after the film is complete, making the recording while watching the film. One of my favorite examples of these last two points is the scene in “Lewis and Clark” where the members of the expedition see the majesty of the Great Plains for the first time. Phil Cunningham’s tune “When Summer Ends” swells as the camera slowly rises from the Missouri River valley to show the sweeping, desolate grandeur of the Plains, and you can sense the awe those western argonauts may have experienced.
Documentaries BKB seem staid and static next to “The Civil War” and the Burns films that followed. They could be well done and interesting, but Burns vivified history and changed the nature of documentary making. He wrote in the commemorative DVD edition of “The Civil War” that it took six years to make the show, two years longer than the war’s duration, but in that time he refined the process that made him a household name to lovers of history. After “The Civil War” was released in 1990 I began seeing the Ken Burns effects used in other films, and it seemed that every historical show now includes sound effects accompanying photos and actors narrating historical writings. And while “Ashokan Farewell” may not be a household name to the average person, in the traditional music world it stands at the top of the charts.