PBS' and Ken Burns' remastered "The Civil War" ends in just a few hours, Friday evening. (My review is below). But what about the remarkable music that made this 11-hour film so indelible, then and now?
Last week, I spoke with Jay Ungar -- the other half of renowned folk duo, Jay Ungar and Molly Mason, who also runs the celebrated Ashokan music camp in upstate Olivebridge, and has for decades. He is the one who wrote much of the music in the film -- one piece of music in particular, the famed "Ashokan Farewell."
Of the "Farewell," he explained that Burns first used it for "the famous letter to Sarah [from Sullivan Ballou, or a soldier's farewell to his wife] and until that moment I was thinking, 'this really doesn't fit. It was a Scottish lament...
"But by the time we heard the letter read with the music and saw in it context, it was overpowering, overwhelming. It was just so clear that [Burns] had figured it out."
Bronx-born Ungar wrote it up in the woods near Woodstock in the late summer of 1982 -- just as all those musicians-in-training to his new camp, which had just begun that summer, were clearing out to go home.
To that point, he had been "floating on a cloud of utopian euphoria -- it was just a perfect world, in the nature preserve, away from radio, TV, newspapers, and just surrounded by music twenty four hours a day." He had also just spent part of the summer in Scotland, and upon returning, had no idea whether his little utopia up in Woodstock would even survive. He was afraid it might not.
He certainly wasn't thinking about "The Civil War" -- which wouldn't arrive for years, even though he had long worked with Burns. In the woods, surrounded by silence, he picked up his fiddle "to bring back all those feelings [about that long ago summer]. It came to me spontaneously and brought me to tears." It did others as well: "Soon I shared [it] with these friends of ours, and discovered that one out of four people cried when they heard it. It flipped on a switch in some folks. At that point, I realized it had a life of its own."
Burns, who heard the piece as well, knew that as well, and would one day use the "Ashokan Farewell" for one the most historic events in TV history.
Here's my review, and check out the clip below:
WHEN | WHERE Monday to Friday, WNET/13 at 9 p.m. WHAT IT'S ABOUT Ken Burns' now-classic "The Civil War" was seen by 40 million viewers over 11 hours in September 1990, blunting commercial network premieres, while becoming one of the most-watched PBS series in history. Now, after undergoing what's called a "4K" restoration -- in which the original film has been rendered in hi-def, or 3,840 lines of resolution, versus the original 480 lines -- "TCW" is back for a 25th anniversary telecast.
MY SAY In 1990, the Cold War had just ended. The two Germanys had united. President George H.W. Bush threatened to go to war with Iraq (on Sept. 11, no less). And then, in the fall -- just as one global threat receded, and another loomed -- a film on the Civil War arrived on a TV set near you.
History was certainly in the air 25 years ago this month, while that great mysterious thing called "the zeitgeist" was on the move. Maybe that's why Burns' film was such an unexpected triumph. Or maybe there just wasn't much on the other channels worth watching. Then, there's always this possibility: Burns, his brother Ric and longtime writer and collaborator, Geoffrey C. Ward, accomplished exactly what Burns had always intended -- a visceral, deeply felt film on a long-distant war that lived on in hearts and minds.
The Burns-Ward accomplishment was singular, but they had a little help from their friends, too, like Shelby Foote, the commentator and historian with the slow Mississippi drawl, incomparable insights and mastery of detail. David McCullough's narration was crisp and elegant. The voice cast was mythic -- Arthur Miller, George Plimpton, Derek Jacobi, Kurt Vonnegut, Laurence Fishburne, Julie Harris, Studs Terkel, Morgan Freeman, Garrison Keillor.
Then there was the music, and one short violin piece, a Scottish lament, in particular, "The Ashokan Farewell." Written in the early '80s by upstate Woodstock folk musician and composer Jay Ungar, it would be heard a couple of dozen times over the 11 hours. Haunting and melancholic, "Farewell" was the real magic here. Will a few extra lines of resolution make "The Civil War" any better? Sure, but hard to imagine how.