Tag Archives: Thanksgiving

Soundtrack for Autumn Travel and Ken Burns’ Civil War

Music Travel



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 Masonhis 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.

Note: A Traveler’s library reveals affiliate links.  The album cover images and album titles here may be links to Amazon, where you can listen to partial music tracks and shop for albums and books. If you click on the link and make a purchase at Amazon, it will benefit Music Road, for which we thank you.

Travel Photos: Thankful for Travel

Happy Thanksgiving    I realize this is an American thing..and you may not be celebrating as we are–but Happy Day, anyhow. What are you thankful for this year? Of course, I am always grateful for TRAVEL. Although much of my travel has been close to home, I’ve explored some scenic and interesting corners of America. After being sidelined by some back problems in the early months of the year, things warmed up. Here’s a quiet Thanks for the opportunities I have had. And I hope you have lots to be thankful for also.   April: Heard Museum Fair, Phoenix

Navajo felter at Heard Museum Indian Market
A non-traditional craft. Navajo felting artist at Heard Museum Indian Market

Continue reading Travel Photos: Thankful for Travel

The Mayflower: Pilgrims Voyage to New England Retold

Mayflower II
Mayflower II

Destination: New England

Book: Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community and War by Nathaniel Philbrick

We might call it Nathaniel Philbrick: Myth Buster

The story of the pilgrims fascinated me because although my ancestors did not arrive  on the Mayflower, they were not far behind.

Myth 1: “Pilgrims” were the first settlers.

Although many other Europeans  landed on North America before the Mayflower, the Puritans and companions who stepped ashore in what is now New England, did  found the first  still-enduring community. That information is not new, but this book’s background on the prior expeditions sheds light on the settlement of Plymouth.

The pilgrims also drew up a remarkable compact of governance which set the stage for participatory democracy on this continent that we now take for granted, and it is interesting to get the background on that.

My own ancestors were on that ill-fated boat that turned around and went back to wait out the winter storms. They re-boarded and arrived on the 2nd boat many months later.  I’ve always been quite proud of that fact, but after reading Philbrick’s Mayflower, my pride mixed with a good deal of pondering.

His subtitle, Courage, Community and War sums up the main themes of this book. These people were indeed courageous.

Myth 2: They were all religious.

Not all 102 passengers were Puritans, driven by a sincere desire to start a church in a new land unhampered by state-imposed religious restrictions. Some were along for the adventure, or because they simply had run out of other options. This was a community that had moved together from Holland to England and intended to move as a body to the New World.  Had they not had this sense of community, they would never have survived to the second winter.

Myth 3: They were surprised by the Indians and both parties were hostile from the beginning.

First Fun Thanksgiving, after J.L.G. Ferris
First (Mythical) Thanksgiving

The War in the subtitle refers to King Philip’s War, rarely touched on in history books. When I was growing up, the Indians were relegated to the role of grateful guests at the Thanksgiving feast. Our awareness of the lives of Indians, and the relations with non-Indian settlers has made its way into our national story. It is politically correct for non-Indians to feel guilty. Philbrick paints a more complex picture than the 1950’s version OR the P.C. version of today.

But, and this was another revelation for me, the original Puritan fathers were quite fair and respectful in negotiating and the natives responded in kind.  It was the second generation of Europeans that took a harsher view and provoked the bloody conflicts referred to in the subtitle as “war.”

I hope that you will have an opportunity to travel to the New England shores where the Pilgrims landed–not at the present location of Plymouth Rock, of course, and perhaps not on a rock at all.

Although the area around the alleged Plymouth Rock seemed tacky, I did enjoy a visit to Plimoth Village, a tasteful recreation of life inside the fort constructed by 1627.

Philbrook presents the deep background that helps us viscerally understand the world as seen by the Puritans and their fellow early world travellers as well as the complex and shifting alliances among Indian tribes along the coast.

Instead of one fateful moment–stepping onto a mythical rock–we have fifty years of struggle, painful decision making, letting go of assumptions, and building of new alliances.  This book certainly provides food for thought for the traveler to New England.