Jay Ungar is perhaps best known for writing a piece of music many people might not realize was composed within the last 30 years. It’s a plaintive fiddle tune immortalized as the main theme music in Ken Burns’ PBS documentary “The Civil War.” Ungar and his wife and performing partner, Molly Mason, will take the Sangamon Auditorium stage on Saturday to celebrate “An Early Birthday Party for A. Lincoln.”
Jay Ungar is perhaps best known for writing a piece of music many people might not realize was composed within the last 30 years.
It’s a plaintive fiddle tune immortalized as the main theme music in Ken Burns’ PBS documentary “The Civil War.”
It’s heard again and again during the series, often as period photographs move slowly across the screen.
But the song, “Ashokan Farewell,” had nothing to do with the historical subject that would help the music find an audience.
“I wasn’t thinking about the Civil War at the time,” Ungar said in a recent telephone interview. “In some ways it surprised me when it fit so well.”
“Ashokan Farewell” is sure to be on the bill Saturday at Sangamon Auditorium, when Ungar and his wife and performing partner, Molly Mason, take the stage to celebrate “An Early Birthday Party for A. Lincoln.”
The duo will be joined by the 10th Illinois Volunteer Cavalry Band, which uses period and contemporary brass instruments. Ungar said R. Todd Cranson, the band’s director, arranged Ungar’s and Mason’s music for the ensemble.
When Ungar wrote the piece in 1982, after his annual Ashokan Fiddle and Dance Camps had ended for the year, it was an expression of loss.
He has said he cried when he first played the piece, and could not play it in front of others for some time.
“I guess I needed to cry that day,” Ungar said in a 2001 interview with National Public Radio. “And I just picked the fiddle up and started playing and this tune essentially composed itself. And as it came together and it got into the form that it now is in, it just got to me.
“And eventually it got to the point where I could perform it, but there was always a tear in the corner of my eye at every performance for at least the first year or two,” Ungar told NPR.
Ungar’s band Fiddle Fever recorded the tune in the late 1980s. After Burns heard a recording, he used it first in a film on the Brooklyn Bridge and then as the main theme for “The Civil War.”
Nearly three decades later, a piece of music that was born as a personal lament now has a life of its own.
Ungar said that over the years, he has received countless letters, e-mails and phone calls about the tune, and he still gets one or two a week.
Many individuals and groups have performed “Ashokan Farewell.” The Illinois Symphony Orchestra, for example, is scheduled to play an arrangement at its Lincoln Bicentennial concert Feb. 7.
“I just feel like it’s a gift of some sort, and I don’t have any regrets about sharing it,” Ungar said.
“It really has made a huge difference in our lives, obviously. It opened up an audience to us that we didn’t really have before — a wider audience — for our performances, and allows us to bring them that music and other music and has given us opportunities we never would have had: performing for presidents, doing an album with Sir James Galway.”
It all goes back to a chance meeting in the late 1970s, when both Ungar and Mason were booked to play in the Towne Crier, a club in rural New York.
In 1978, before “A Prairie Home Companion” was the public radio phenomenon it has become today, Mason took a job playing bass in the program’s house band, then known as the Powder Milk Biscuit Band.
“I didn’t know anything about it because I had never heard the show. I’m originally from Washington state, way out west, where at that time the show was not carried,” Mason said.
“They tried to explain to me what the gig was and what the radio show was all about, and I kind of was like, ‘What?! What are you talking about? That’s crazy.’
“But I said yes to the gig, and I moved there and played with that band for just about a year,” Mason recalled.
During her tenure, a pilot was prepared to test the show around the country. She didn’t think anything would come of it, but the show was picked up for wider distribution. Today, of course, it’s one of the most popular programs on public radio.
Ungar said that when Garrison Keillor, the man behind “A Prairie Home Companion,” moved the show to New York in the 1990s and changed its name to “The American Radio Company of the Air,” Ungar and Mason were brought in to be an alternate house band for five to 10 shows a year.
“As he transitioned back to ‘A Prairie Home Companion,’ we were kind of more the old sound,” Ungar said. “So we did that for two or three years together.”
Ungar and Mason began occasionally performing together in the late 1970s; they were married in 1991.
Asked whether being married and professional performance partners made life easier or more difficult, Mason had a simple answer: “Yes."
“I think in the long run it’s easier,” Mason said. “I guess it depends on how eye-to-eye you see.
“I think it’s great to travel together, for example. ... Doing the traveling that is involved with being a musician, a performer, it’s really nice for us to be married and be together, because it’s hours in the car together. If we weren’t married or we were married to others, we would be away from home during that time and away from our spouses.”
Ungar agreed, but said it can be a challenge to separate the private from the business in their “totally merged” lives.
“There are days when we feel like we never get a moment to just be ourselves and talk to each other about the weather or go shopping for plants to plant out in the yard,” Mason added. “Or not think about, ‘What’s that second chord you played on that tune? I wanted to hear something different.’”
Mason said the duo still plays together at home — “We have to sometimes work at that,” she said — particularly when they have a gig with songs they don’t usually play.
That’s the case with Saturday’s show at Sangamon Auditorium.
Ungar said, “There’ll be some pieces in the show that —”
“— We don’t usually play —” Mason interjected.
“— Or we never have performed publicly before,” Ungar said.
“That’s a great opportunity to sit down and play and go over some tunes,” Mason said.
With the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth this year, the duo has many Lincoln-related events on its calendar.
Among the songs Ungar and Mason are playing for the first time is one that — according to history or folklore, as Ungar put it — was Lincoln’s favorite.
“Listen to the Mockingbird” was popular in Lincoln’s time, performed by traveling opera singers and brass bands. But Ungar said it eventually become a fiddle showpiece and contest tune, where fiddlers would go up the neck of the instrument to imitate birds.
“The thing is, learning something new or writing new tunes, without that, I think we wouldn’t be able to keep doing it,” Ungar said. “It’s part of what keeps it alive and fun.”
“Sometimes I think we get paid to get on airplanes and drive, and the rest of it is the fun part.”
Brian Mackey can be reached at (217) 747-9587 or email@example.com.
Jay Ungar and Molly Mason
“An Early Birthday Party for A. Lincoln,” with the 10th Illinois Volunteer Cavalry Band
8 p.m. Saturday
Sangamon Auditorium, on the campus of the University of Illinois at Springfield
$37, available at the Sangamon Auditorium ticket office, by calling 206-6160 or at