Ashokan Farewell


Although it sounds ancient, this tune is actually modern, written by Jay Unger in 1982 for the end of a fiddle and dance festival in the Catskills of upper New York state. But it will probably always be identified with the Civil War, due to Ken Burns’ extensive use of it in his masterful documentary. This is my own interpretation, for Irish whistles, tenor recorder, and what’s becoming my usual folkie/Celtic instrumentarium. I’ve refrained, however, from illustrating it with a Civil War slideshow: not from any concern for the phony offendedness of pc Stalinists seeking to devalue a banner under which so many brave men fought and died (and I say that as a descendant of those Germans whose “ethnic vote” put Lincoln over the top in 1860) but rather from a disinclination to invite comparisons in which I must inevitably come in second. But certainly the song throbs with loss, not just personal but for a whole culture or lifeway, so I’ve chosen to memorialize two enterprises from a time when my hometown Philadelphia was a great industrial center.
The Baldwin Locomotive Works was one of the premier locomotive builders in the country; the Budd Company a pioneer in the use of stainless steel, which they used to make car bodies for Detroit but also railcars, including the Frankford El trains I rode so often as a boy. Both were done in by changing economic and technological conditions (the one in the 50s, the other the 70s). Now a functioning economy, like an ecology, is very good at recycling its dead: Baldwin moved its plant to the suburbs in the 30s and its massive footprint in the city has long since been filled in. If you go to the plant site in Eddystone, you will see a modest 30s-style office building (the former company headquarters), and, beyond a line of trees, suburban housing developments. Only old photos of the “heroic age” on the walls of that building remain to say what was once here. But in our cities, to a great degree, the economy has ceased to function: and Budd’s plant in North Philadelphia stands vacant and decaying, unutterably sad.
It’s easy, too easy, to mourn the past; but the passing of these great concerns tore a great hole in the life of the city, and it has never really been filled.
The whistles I play on this piece are made by a fine little company called Shearwater Whistles. If you want to check them out go here:


Leave A Reply

Your email address will not be published.