We were in Eugene, Oregon, staying at Armitage Park (Lane County), heading south at the beginning of our 2018 spring road trip. Julie and Chuck would meet us at the campground, we’d have some wine and snacks in Further, then dinner out, ending up at Shedd Jaqua Concert Hall to see Jay Ungar and Molly Mason. We’d come to love their music but it hadn’t been easy to find them as the source. Here’s the story.
Seattle has been celebrating Northwest Folklife – food, storytelling music, dance, and crafts – at Seattle Center on Memorial Day weekend for 48 years. It’s free, staffed by volunteers and funded by donation.
Folklife is a huge, four-day festival, one of a declining number around the country but so far Seattle has been supportive. The city loves public celebrations, large and small, and its social calendar is crowded with one-off and annual events.
Though we were living in Olympia in the spring of 2017, it turned out we’d be cat-sitting Lola in her Magnolia condo while our daughter and her husband spent time in Prague as he finished his final MBA project. We could go to Folklife. (2017 Folklife schedule)
It was a beautiful, warm, sunny spring day. We walked uphill to catch the 24 bus to Queen Anne and were at Fisher Green at the Center in half-an-hour listening to Roscoe’s Gone play southern string music. Kids played at nearby International Fountain dodging spray as the fountain changed its direction and rhythm. Young women danced and whirled with colorful swaths of fabric. The audience sat on the green, green grass or folding chairs, many wearing hats acknowledging the strong late May sun.
West of the Fisher Green stage we came upon a big group of mostly teenage fiddlers, maybe 50, a harpist, two girls on bass, and their guitar-wielding adult leader. They were impressive. We listen for a while and drifted on past vendors, had a funnel cake, and watched contra dancers in the Fisher Pavilion.
Vancouver Fiddlers Lovers’ Waltz – audio only
The big fiddle group was now on the stage at the Mural Amphitheater, so we sat on the grass, watched and listened. They began to play a sweet, sad, poignant waltz, one we’d never heard before. It was beautiful. Yvonne saw a sign identifying the group as the Vancouver Fiddlers Philharmonic.
We wandered down to Myrtle Edwards Park on Elliot Bay, walking along the water, two Alaska Cruise ships to the north, past the three-rocks sculpture where I photographed our daughter and her cousins 35 years before, past the P.I. building and globe, founded in 1863 and now demoted to an online newspaper.
We weren’t near the bus route, we felt strong: why not walk back to the Magnolia condo? So we did. But it was longer and less fun than we expected. The trail runs through the BNSF rail yards with cyclone fencing on both sides. It’s not a pretty place to walk. Finally we found our way to Mulleady’s Irish Pub at 21st and Dravus. We were happy to sit down for a while.
Back at the condo Yvonne told me she kept hearing the Vancouver Fiddlers’ music in her head, stuck on repeat. What was it? How could we hear it again? We looked up Vancouver Fiddle Philharmonic – and found nothing. They don’t seem to have a website. How could we find out the name of the waltz we liked? We were stymied.
I had taken some video and Yvonne listened to it over and over until she heard the band leader introduce the piece as the “Lovers’ Waltz.” I searched for that name on YouTube and Jay Ungar and MolIy Mason came up as the source. Eventually I bought and downloaded the 1997 Ungar/Mason “The Lovers’ Waltz” album and we listened to it from time to time.
Two other pieces on the album were familiar: “The Mountain House” and “Legends of the Fall.” Reading about Ungar on the web I found that he had written “Ashokan Farewell,” the theme Ken Burns used in his PBS documentary “The Civil War” we had watched. Ah, that’s where that piece came from. But Ungar hadn’t written it for Burns.
About “Ashokan Farewell” in Burns’ documentary, the Los Angeles Times reported (Nov 24, 1990) “ … Ungar, previously an obscure professional musician who lives in the Catskill Mountain village of West Hurley, N.Y., is suddenly in the limelight. ‘Nobody anticipated the interest that would occur,’ he said. ‘It makes me really happy that it’s touched that many people.’”
Ungar and Mason run a summer music and dance camp in the Catskills at the SUNY Ashokan Field Campus and in 1982 as the group was breaking up and heading back to the city, Ungar wrote the song that had such a profound effect on so many people. “I was feeling very sad from coming down from this wonderful experience and I started to express it musically, and this is the tune that resulted. I was actually in tears when I composed it” (LA Times again).
“Legends of the Fall,” three connected novellas by the late Jim Harrison, and based on journals kept by his wife Linda’s mining engineer great-grandfather (Guardian Mar 30 2016), became the 1994 film of the same name, with an early Brad Pitt role (with Anthony Hopkins, Julia Ormond, Aidan Quinn, and Henry Thomas, directed by Edward Zwick). Yvonne and I have seen it several times and it always brings us to tears. The story takes place in Montana but was shot in the Canadian Rockies in Alberta, an area we traveled through in Further in 2016. The late James Horner composed the music for “Legends of the Fall.” The Ungar and Mason fiddle and piano rendition of the film’s theme in the “Lovers’ Waltz” album is strong, simple, and satisfying.
So now we had “Lovers’ Waltz” and knew something about Ungar and Mason. Then what? In late 2018 I went back to their website and found they were booked to appear in Eugene in April, just down the road from Olympia (well, a couple hundred miles south on I-5). We were planning to take Further south in April. We could make it work.
Would Julie and Chuck be interested? Both are musicians: Chuck guitar and base; Julie guitar, fiddle, flute, and I don’t know what all, and both do vocals. They often perform together. Julie’s musical interests are broad and include folk. Yvonne wrote, “Would you be interested?” Julie said “Yes.”
So here we were at Armitage Park, in the RV camping section. We’d been here twice before and liked the county park on the McKenzie River just north of Eugene. Big trees, a path along the river, full hookups, online reservations. Julie and Chuck found us and we sat, sipped, and talked awhile before driving with them into Eugene. Julie had made reservations at Ambrosia on Broadway near the Jaqua Concert Hall. We’d been to Ambrosia twice before and had conflicting experiences – with food, service, and ambient temperature. But this evening we enjoyed ourselves.
Jaqua is a medium-sized venue and worn out, this night about half-filled for Ungar and Mason. We sat in the front row to the right and had a good view of Jay out front and Molly, most of the time at the piano, facing our direction. They took turns introducing the pieces, though it was mostly Jay. He’s self-deprecating, warm, and kind. She’s an accomplished pianist and guitarist. They have a strong presence together.
Their website says “He was a Bronx kid. She grew up in Washington State. He was raised on pop music of the 1940s and ’50s. She had a fondness for traditional fiddle music and ’30s and ’40s popular tunes. He hung out in Greenwich Village coffeehouses and roamed North Carolina and Tennessee in search of traditional players. She played clubs and colleges on the West Coast and took a liking to the jazzy sound of the Swing Era. Since joining forces—both artistically and romantically (the two would marry in 1991)—Jay Ungar and Molly Mason have become one of the most celebrated duos on the American acoustic music scene.”
Lovers’ Waltz in Eugene audio excerpt
Jay can make his fiddle sing, a voice through bow and strings. He’s an expert, not just as a technician but as an interpreter. It’s a great pleasure to hear the two of them perform.
Then the evening was over and we walked out on the street aware of young homeless on the corners in this university town. On other visits to Eugene we’d spent time in the used bookstores, something I now did every time we stopped in Ashland.
In the morning we left Armitage Park and met Julie and Chuck for breakfast at the Morning Glory Cafe. We said our goodbyes and headed west to the coast to Coos Bay and Shore Acres State Park for a look at their elaborate gardens and rugged coastline.
© 2019, johnashenhurst. All rights reserved.