Just 100 miles north of the cacophony that is New York City, lie the tranquil Catskills Mountains, home to the Ashokan Ukulele Festival. Now in its fifth year, the festival is held at the Ashokan Center, a 385-acre environmental and educational preserve presided over by famous fiddler Jay Ungar and his wife, guitarist Molly Mason.
As festival director since its inception, well-known ukulele musician Gerald Ross put together another stellar line-up for this year’s festival. Held over the Memorial Day weekend, the faculty included Ross, ukulele great James Hill and Anne Janelle, Grammy winners Marcy Marxer and Cathy Fink, Ben Hassenger, Victor Lissabet, and this writer.
Although called a festival, Ashokan is really a ukulele immersion. Attendees stay in beautiful and rustic lodge buildings, dine together, and most importantly, play music together for three days. Among the musical activities are a myriad of interesting workshops, an instructor concert with added musical support from Jay and Molly, a student cabaret, and lots of jamming. But there is also plenty of time to stroll the bucolic Ashokan grounds.
The real beauty of the Ashokan Ukulele Festival, however, is how quickly the bonds of friendship are forged in just a few days’ time and the sorrow that comes when the campers must depart. That’s how Jay Ungar’s now timeless fiddle tune, “Ashokan Farewell,” came into being. For decades, Jay and Molly have hosted fiddle and dance camps at Ashokan during the summer months. Jay decided to write a tune dedicated to the final farewells on the last day of camp and “Ashokan Farewell” was born.
Worldwide acclaim for the song resulted when it was used as the main theme for Ken Burns’ landmark PBS special, The Civil War. Ashokan Farewell was propelled into the annals of fiddle tune history. So on our final day, as we all stood in the concert hall after breakfast listening to Jay and Molly play the song for us, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.