Ashokan Center celebrates 50 years

Jay Ungar and Molly Mason

Having heard the haunting tones of Ashokan Farewell, a waltz in D major composed by Jay Ungar in September 1982 and used in the soundtrack to Ken Burns’ documentary series Civil War, few of us can forget it.

The moving tune was written in a moment of melancholy after the end of his third Ashokan summer music and dance camp at a site that nestled in the Catskill Mountains, not far from Woodstock, New York. The property was owned by the State University of New York (SUNY) at New Paltz, and has been used since 1967 as a field campus for environmental education.

Named by Ungar’s wife and performing partner Molly Mason, Ashokan Farewell helped save the location that inspired the song, resulting in the Ashokan Center, the $7.25 million campus dedicated to traditional music, Catskill history, environmental education, as well as local arts and crafts.

Shortly after Ungar and Mason’s St. Patrick’s Day, 2006, White House appearance with flutist Sir James Galway, Ungar read a headline in a local paper, The Kingston Daily Freeman, that startled him; “Ashokan Field Campus Sold”. Ungar then heard rumors that a local logger was about to buy the land. Both stories gratifyingly proved untrue, but prompted Ungar to write a letter, with the White House program attached, to Governor George E. Pataki, reminding him of a Gettysburg meeting between them in 1999.

It transpired that there was to be a sale – to New York City, who intended to use the campus as a spillway to help prevent flooding and preserve water purity for the nearby Ashokan Reservoir, which provides much of New York City’s drinking water. The plan would not have preserved the cultural activities on the land, including the music and dance camp, concerts and visual art exhibitions.

Long story short; a deal was brokered that sold most of the land to New York City for its spillway, but granted the remaining forest, farmland and streams to the Ashokan Center. The deal also paid for four new buildings on the property, which is protected from development. It amounts to 385 acres of classic Catskill forests, fields and streams, providing a safe and inspiring setting.

All this was due to the power of Ashokan Farewell and the memorable performance of the tune at a Civil War site.

For five decades now, Ashokan has introduced children to the natural world. Through compassionate group learning, the integration of environmental education, history, the arts, and shared quality time in the great outdoors, it encourages critical thinking, collaboration, communication and creative problem solving.

Then there’s the music, provided by Ungar, Mason, Geoff Muldaur, The Down Hill Strugglers and John Cohen; Sarah Lee Guthrie; Phoebe Hunt & The Gatherers; Lily & Duncan; and others, and the many opportunities to dance in free form and in squares. Additionally, there are the many opportunities to learn flat-footing.

On Wednesday, November 1, 2017, the Ashokan Center will stage a 50th anniversary benefit at West Village, New York from 6:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m.

Guests of honor will be Jay Ungar and Molly Mason. Friends and fans are invited to join them for an evening to remember with cocktails, live music, farm-to-table appetizers by Chefs John Novi and Bill Warnes, and a special salute to Ungar and Mason.

The Ashokan Center is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization. It provides full-service facilities for weddings, conferences and retreats. The sustainably designed center includes lodging for up to 160 people, a performance hall, two classrooms, an outdoor pavilion and a variety of catering options. 

For those that want to attend the benefit tickets can be obtained from The Ashokan Center website.

Those who cannot attend are invited to make a donation, all of which are tax-deductible to the fullest extent of the law. This can be done by making contact with The Ashokan Center directly.

All proceeds will help The Ashokan Center to continue their work for the next 50 years.

The Ashokan Center is at 477 Beaverkill Road, Olivebridge, New York 12461-5702.

Ashokan Farewell was recorded at the suggestion of guitarist Russ Barenberg for Fiddle Fever’s second LP, Waltz of the Wind (Flying Fish FF 303). Playing on the tune are Evan Stover (fiddle), Matt Glaser (fiddle), Jay Ungar (fiddle and mandolin), Molly Mason (string bass) and Russ Barenberg (guitar).

The tune was re-released in 1990 on the Elektra Nonesuch album, The Civil War – Original Soundtrack Recording.

And here performed Live from the Pewter Shop at the 2016 Summer HOOT! Filmed and recorded by Beehive Productions (

The HOOT! is a music festival held every Summer and Winter at the Ashokan Center in Olivebridge, New York.

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About the Author

Richard Thompson

Richard F. Thompson is a long-standing free-lance writer specialising in bluegrass music topics. A two-time Editor of British Bluegrass News, he has been seriously interested in bluegrass music since about 1970. As well as contributing to that magazine, he has, in the past 30 plus years, had articles published by Country Music World, International Country Music News, Country Music People, Bluegrass Unlimited, MoonShiner (the Japanese bluegrass music journal) and Bluegrass Europe. He wrote the annotated series I'm On My Way Back To Old Kentucky, a daily memorial to Bill Monroe that culminated with an acknowledgement of what would have been his 100th birthday, on September 13, 2011.