Jay Ungar & Molly Mason: A Sense of Place
For folk musicians Jay Ungar and Molly Mason, partners in life and in music for more than four decades, playing together privately has solved many a disagreement.
Molly Mason is an acclaimed guitarist and bassist, best known for her work with fiddle player Jay Ungar.
Raised in Washington State, Mason met Ungar in the late 1970s in a music club in rural New York. They played together on occasion until Mason moved to Minnesota to join the house band of Garrison Keillor’s much-loved NPR show A Prairie Home Companion. She returned to New York to join Ungar in folk band Fiddle Fever, whose song “Ashokan Farewell” became the theme for the landmark Ken Burns documentary The Civil War.
Mason and Ungar married in 1991. The same year, they were signed as a duo to Angel Records. They released a series of celebrated albums, including The Lovers’ Waltz (1997) and Harvest Home (1999), which contains a collaboration with the Nashville Chamber Orchestra.
The duo also perform with country blues and swing band Swingology and in the Jay Ungar and Molly Mason Family Band.
Jay Ungar is a renowned fiddle player, best known for his collaborations with guitarist and bassist Molly Mason. He was nominated for an Emmy for the song “Ashokan Farewell,” used as the theme for Ken Burns’s popular PBS documentary series The Civil War.
Born in 1946 in New York City and raised in the Bronx, Ungar met Mason in a Hudson Valley music club in the late 1970s. They played together in the folk string band Fiddle Fever, which recorded much of the music for the Grammy-winning soundtrack to The Civil War. Since their marriage in 1991, the pair have released over a dozen albums and contributed music to several other Ken Burns series and to the 1992 film Brother’s Keeper.
Ungar also plays with waltz band Swingology and with his daughter Ruth Ungar and her husband in the Jay Ungar and Molly Mason Family Band. Since the 1980s, he has organized annual Music and Dance camps at the Ashokan Center in the Catskill Mountains.
After his wife, Molly Mason, came out of surgery to remove a brain tumor, Jay Ungar didn’t know how she would recover. Doctors had warned him she might be a different person. At one point during her convalescence when she still hadn’t started speaking after waking up from a coma, Ungar and Mason’s brother James decided to play the “Blue River Waltz” on two fiddles for her.
Molly Mason: My brother didn’t really know the tune. He was harmonizing it and, harmonizing it as though it was a C chord, and I called out, “A minor.” And of course that caused jubilation and the folks who were listening from what I hear, because I was able to speak and able to recognize chords. So something was in there. I think at that point, they didn’t even know if there was very much in there.
It’s hard to imagine a more fitting symbol to bring Mason back into her body. She and Ungar have spent the past 40 years cultivating a shared life in folk music, first as band mates and then as husband and wife. They’ve played for presidents, and since the 1980s have run camps in upstate New York that use music to unite.
Jay Ungar: A lot of what we do here speaks to people with different backgrounds, different political beliefs, and it’s a chance to be together and not necessarily know that about each other, but to know something human that connects.
Mason: can almost see the beauty of where this tune came from, where this song came from in the past. And that’s a great thing. And I think that makes us share our humanity.
Ungar: Part of what we’re presenting is common heritage. This is what we all have in common.
For Ungar, the link between music and place came early in his life while growing up in New York City.
Ungar: Fortunately, my dad had built kind of a cabin or a bungalow, you call it, 45 minutes north of the Bronx on a hillside community above a lake. And I got to spend my summers there. And that became my love. I really connected with nature and felt more alive and human there. Then when I began to hear fiddle music, which was something that my instrument could do, but I couldn’t yet, I connected that with the rural life, with a connection to nature, with a connection to farming. And so maybe that’s what I’ve been searching for, as a composer or writer of tunes, is music that helps heal me in some way.
When they met, both Mason and Ungar were in long-term relationships. They were musical colleagues for years before they became a couple. It was all a little awkward at first.
Mason: It was a very kind of wonderful and exciting but clumsy time because we were still doing gigs with Fiddle Fever, where I was the bass player and a band member. And he was the band leader. And you know, our relationship was the same it had been for five years and then the gig would be over and we would be back into this burgeoning couple thing. It was a funny time.
Working with a spouse can be complicated, but Molly and Jay have learned that music is often the perfect salve for any relationship tensions.
Mason: I do remember times when we were arguing and not agreeing about something and then sitting down to go through something, play a tune, and immediately all that’s gone. And it’s all about the music, and it’s wonderful.
Ungar: It’s not an act that we get along like this. Something happens and there’s complete love. There it is.
Much of their life together has not only been about sharing music, but also about creating spaces for others to share it. In 1980, Ungar started the Ashokan Fiddle and Dance Camps at a state university of New York campus to bring American music and dance to enthusiasts of all skill levels. In 1982, Ungar wanted to compose a tune to capture the sadness that that year’s camp would soon be over. Within an hour fiddling around, he had most of what would become “Ashokan Farewell.” The tune would become iconic after it was used as the main theme for Ken Burns’ 1990 documentary series The Civil War. It has since been covered by musicians far and wide, including bluegrass guitarist Tony Rice, and the Royal Marine Band.
And this simple, poignant waltz has, over the years, prove to have a particular universal emotional resonance.
Ungar: We were traveling in the Yucatan. We rented a car and we were going to remote places and we decided to visit this cave, which had a deep Mayan history. And we got there, there were two elderly Mayan people whose second language was Spanish, first language Mayan, no English, and their grandchildren. And they took a little money to let you visit the cave. We had instruments with us. So when we came out of the cave, Molly and I looked at each other and said, let’s play a couple of tunes for these folks. So then we played “Ashokan Farewell” and the woman just, tears started streaming down her face. And clearly she was not connected to Scottish, Irish, American culture. There was a switch in that, that does that.
As Molly Mason and Jay Ungar have built a life together over the decades, they’ve come to learn that the switch that music can throw in people’s brains is pretty universal. A unifying force in their own relationship, it has also been a means to bring others closer together through shared heritage. And in all they do, it’s as much about the listener as the player, about giving as receiving.