Destination: North America Autumn Travel
Music: Harvest Home by Jay Ungar and Molly Mason [Angel Records]
Article by Kerry Dexter
Note: Here’s a video of the Ashokan Farewell, the final piece in Harvest Home and the song featured in Ken Burns’ Civil War on PBS. (If the video does not immediately show, try refreshing the page.)
Traveling down winding roads and watching leaves turn to red and gold; pausing in your travels to sip apple cider and admire earthy pumpkins and crisp apples at roadside stands; planning for autumn celebrations and autumn travel; seeing changes in how light and shadows fall that autumn brings — whether you experience these things while living close to the land or through the produce section at the grocer’s or the signs you see in shop windows, you know it is a time of changing seasons.
“Throughout most of human history, man has been very connected with the planet for his basic sustenance,” says musician Jay Ungar, whose father was a grocer in the Bronx in New York. Ungar now lives in the Catskill Mountains of New York State. “The latest generations seem to have gotten away from farming, hunting, and gathering. Yet, there is still a spiritual need to be connected to creation.”
Would you like a soundtrack for your autumn travel? Ungar and Molly Mason, his musical and life partner, have that for you. They offer music that ranges from a five part orchestral piece that draws on American folk music and seasonal themes to original music to nineteenth century dance tunes for fiddle. They pair Hoedown by composer Aaron Copland with the folk music piece Bonaparte’s Retreat which inspired his work. Adding in a lively Cajun tune, a sixteenth century Solstice hymn, and a fiddle tune by Ungar which has become a modern day classic, these two musicians travel a lot of territory, geographically and musically, on their album Harvest Home.
It was the orchestral piece, the Harvest Home Suite, that provided the spark for the album. It happened in a roundabout way. Mason says:
“We were asked to write music for another project, and we worked with a wonderful orchestrator, Conni Ellisor from Nashville, who we had not met or known of before. The push and pull of ideas with her was a great experience, and we had the music done, we were all set, and then this other project didn’t pan out and they weren’t going to use it. So here we were with this piece of music that we really loved by this point.”
It could be the beginning of an album, they thought. To create an album around it that made musical sense turned out to be “a bit of a challenge,” Mason points out, “because we wanted to stick with things that were agriculturally related, that deal with times and season and harvest in particular.”
Though the music on Harvest Home comes from diverse points of geography, Ungar and Mason both have strong connections to their home base in the Catskill Mountains of New York State, and they feel this helped them focus on the idea of harvest and seasons.
“We live in an area that is agricultural and partially forest preserve. It gives a connection to the earth and the seasons in a way that I didn’t feel when I was a kid growing up in New York city,” says Ungar. Mason, who lived in Washington State until she followed her music east, feels that connection as well. “When we’re on tour, we’re out in the fast lane world,” she says, “but here at home, just driving by what we drive by to go to the grocer or run errands, I think it definitely impacts our music and how we go about it, “ Mason says.
The Harvest Home Suite, which closes he music on the album, is one of its centerpieces. As the music winds its journey through season and story and travel and landscape, there are two others.
The recording opens with Mason’s original song Bound for Another Harvest Home. It’s a graceful melody, and Mason’s warm voice and style invite ideas of friendly gatherings and returning to well loved places. “As we were pulling the album together, we decided we needed a song to set the ideas of the music in context,” Mason says.
Ashokan Farewell, which evokes the reflective side of autumn, has a story of its own as well. For a number of years, Ungar and Mason have run summer music and dance workshops at a camp in New York State called called Ashokan. One year, sad as the summer session was ending and friends new and old were going their separate ways, Ungar poured his feelings into a piece of music . Several years later, Ashokan Farewell came to the attention of film maker Ken Burns, who chose it as the signature tune for what would become his award winning series on the American Civil War.
As the songs and tunes on Harvest Home travel across the landscapes of North America, so the Harvest Home Suite, which closes the recording, draws the music together in a journey through the seasons. Unlike the path followed in seasonal sets of music by other musicians, though, Ungar and Mason decided to have the trip travel a different rhythm. “Instead of ending in winter, we ended in summer,” Jay Ungar says, “and instead of thinking of it as ending there, we think of it as starting over from there.”
Travel through the seasons which begins anew with autumn and harvest time: that is an idea familiar to First Peoples across North America, in Celtic legend and story, and indeed, part of what is celebrated on the road and at home at Thanksgiving. May the music of Harvest Home make a fine soundtrack for your autumn travel and celebration.
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