S8 E6 | CLIP

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.

AIRED: November 12, 2021 | 0:10:02

(Inspiring music)

(folk music)

- [Cotter] 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.

- [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 that was very much in there.

- [Cotter] 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 used music to unite.

- [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] You 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.

- [Cotter] 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.

It's 45 minutes north of the Bronx

on a hillside community above on 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.

- [Cotter] 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.

(folk music)

- [Cotter] Working with a spouse can be complicated,

but Molly and Jay have learned that music is often the

perfect salve for any relationship tension.

- [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 got along like this.

Something happens and

there's complete love.

There it is.

- [Cotter] 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 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.

(Ashokan Farewell plays)

- [Cotter] And a 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 that clearly she was not connected to

Scottish, Irish, American culture.

There was a switch in that, that does that.

- [Cotter] 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.

(folk music)

- Articulate with Jim Cotter is made possible with generous

funding from the Neubauer Family Foundation.


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