Saddest Songs Ever

by Jimmy Akin

in Music

There’s a bit in the final episode of Babylon 5 where Vir recounts a time when he and Londo (who is dead now) once heard the Pak’ma’ra singing.

The Pak’ma’ra are a vile, disgusting, Cthuloid race that nobody likes, and nobody knew they could sing, but they do–rarely and for religious reasons. Vir says that it was the most beautiful sound he had ever heard,
full of sadness, and hope, wonder, and a terrible sense of loss. Londo was moved to tears.

He concludes:

When it
was over, Londo turned to me and said "There are
forty-nine gods in our pantheon, Vir; to tell you the truth I never
believed in any of them. But if only one of them exists, then God
sings with that voice." It’s funny. After everything we have been
through, all he did… I miss him.

I recently ran across a song that I hadn’t heard in ages: "Ashokan Farewell."

This song became famous in 1990 when Ken Burns used it as the main theme of his series The Civil War. It is a staggeringly beautiful theme, filled with sadness and hope and wonder and a terrible sense of loss.

Together with "Some Day Never Comes" by Creedence Clearwater Revival and "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, et al., it’s one of the three saddest, most beautiful songs I know. (Though some of Mark Herd’s stuff comes close.)

Unlike the rest of the music Burns used in The Civil War, "Ashokan Farewell" is not a period piece. In fact, it was written in 1982 by a gentleman named Jay Ungar, who conducted a series of summer fiddle and dance workshops in Ashokan, New York. He describes how the song came about:

I composed Ashokan Farewell in 1982 shortly after the summer
programs had come to an end. I was experiencing a great feeling of loss
and longing for the lifestyle and the community of people that had
developed at Ashokan that summer. The transition from living in the
woods with a small group of people who needed little excuse to
celebrate the joy of living through music and dancing, back to life as
usual, with traffic, disturbing newscasts, "important" telephone calls
and impersonal relationships had been difficult. I was in tears when I
wrote Ashokan Farewell . I kept the tune to myself for months, slightly
embarrassed by the emotions that welled up whenever I played it.

Ungar’s tears have been mirrored in the eyes of thousands of others who have heard the song. Softer-edged than "Someday Never Comes" and "Will the Circle Be Unbroken," whose lyrics sharpen the sense of loss these songs convey, "Ashokan Farewell"’s lyricless-melody perfectly captures the bittersweet of nostalgia–the sense of beauty and loss, the desire to go back and experience things again–to see old friends and loved ones–as a rush of memories comes flooding back. Since the song in its original form has no lyrics, it is not bound to any particular plot. Your memories fill in the detail as the song moves you to contemplate what was . . . and no longer is.

But which may be again.

When Christ makes all things new.

LISTEN TO THE SONG (midi version, not fully orchestrated).




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Brian December 20, 2004 at 8:37 am

How about the instrumental piece Adagio for Strings. Used in Platoon and various other movies’ trailers. I love a version of that piece with the words for Agnus Dei. Simply amazing!

BillyHW December 20, 2004 at 2:40 pm

The second movements of Joaquin Rogrigo’s Concierto Aranjuez and Concierto Andaluz are some pretty sad pieces of music.
I believe he wrote the former while his wife was near-death during childbirth. I think the child died and he was begging God through his music to spare his wife. Or maybe it was the other way around. I can’t remember.

tony holt September 27, 2007 at 4:10 am

dear jimmy
i first heard the ashokan farewell on the telivision when i was watching the civil war
and i was totally moved by it. it seemed to capture the whole mood of the programme when it was played to accompany the letter of sullivan ballou to his wife i thought it was one of the most saddest and moving things i have ever heard.
i am in a civil war reenactment group and i play it on my guitar in our camp im a reb and one of the yankees can play the fiddle so what we do is meet at our picket lines and play it we allways get a crowd from both sides coming to listen.
i dearsay it happened for real.
i liked your article and babylon five was a great
all the best tony holt london england

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