Jay Ungar and Molly Mason Interview

1991 was a big year for Jay Ungar and Molly Mason. The couple married and their careers began to take off. Filmmaker Ken Burns used the duo’s music for his PBS series The Civil War. The soundtrack album won a Grammy.
It wasn’t long before every major publication in the U.S. including Time, Rolling Stone, and The New Yorker was beating a path to the couple’s door.
Together, Jay and Molly began a concert career based on their own compositions as well as heart-felt renditions of traditional American music.
We spoke with the couple about their life in music.

Q – You reside in Ashokan, N.Y. Where is that?
Molly – It’s about 15 minutes west of Kingston. We’re two hours north of New York City. We’re about an hour south of Albany. Just west of the river about 20 minutes.

Q – You ran a music and dance camp for adults. What was that all about?
Jay – Yeah-----well, it’s still running. The twenty-fifth summer is in the planning stages right now. We started in 1980. It’s called Fiddle And Dance at Ashokan. The basic idea came from my attending other either music camps, dance camps, or mixes of them. As a teacher and coming away very inspired by the experience as anybody who might go to a conference or a week long workshop of some sort, when you’re away from your regular life and you’re secluded with other people of similar interests, you can get much more deeply into things and in a sense more deeply involved with other people on a level that feels more real than what we call the real world. So, I felt these experiences were inspiring to me. I got involved with helping to run an event of this sort that ended up failing because of the administrative complexities. After seeing that happen, I thought I could do it myself. I attempted to run a long weekend of dance instruction on my own.

Q – What kind of dancing are we talking about?
Molly – We have 3 different weeks, each of which is a different genre. First one is Western And Swing. We have music and the kind of dancing that goes with the music or the kind of music that goes with the dancing, whichever way you want to look at Western And Swing-----has Lindy, Six Count Swing dancing, Country-Western dancing, but, kind of older stuff, more real stuff.
Jay – And square dancing.
Molly – Comtre dancing, which is a New England style that goes back 200 years, plus French-Canadian step dancing. English Country dance.

Q – Are you two accomplished dancers?
Molly – No. We have a staff of 25 people at each of these weeks that we hire from all over the country. We teach too, but, we also bring in other musicians and dance teachers.
Jay – We’re just recreational dancers ourselves. There are 160 people there for a week. It requires 20-25 instructors. A combination of musicians, instructors. In a given time period, there are 6-8 classes going on. In a given day, we have 5 or 6 periods, so, we’re talking about 30-35 classes a day that you could pick from. The average person will take 3 or 4 in a day. Fiddle music is rooted in dance. There is a certain amount of fiddle music that people sit back and listen to, but, the roots are definitely in the dance world. I feel that I’ve been most inspired as a fiddler when I play for people who are dancing. I learn from it. For dancing to really be at it’s best, you need musicians who are really into doing that.

Q – What do you call your music?
Jay – A name for the music is such a tricky thing, ‘cause of categories. Out there, there’s people who call music, folk music. They call something else traditional folk music. There’s a radio category now called Americana which we sort of fit into. We’ve kind of gone along based on our own love of music, without thinking about the categories that the world of commercial music utilizes. They need to do it to do business. We haven’t really needed to do that although it would be beneficial to us if we fit in better. You know, people could get a handle on it. The other day, we came up with our own category. (Laughs).
Molly – Classic American. The fact is, American music is made up from all these all over the map influences, just like our country is. We figure if we call it Classic American that gives us a lot of room to move from Celtic-based stuff to Cajun to whatever.
Jay – Because we play a mix of music that you might use the word eclectic to describe different idioms, different genres, we try to pick things from each one that move us and affect us the most, the ones that we feel are the most powerful. So, that’s part of the reason why we use Classic. Each piece we try to select carefully.

Q – Whether we call it folk music or Classic American, it doesn’t seem to have had the impact it once did in the early 60’s. Rock ‘n’ Roll, or Pop music, whatever that means today, has clearly taken over.
Jay – Absolutely.
Molly – Yeah, it’s true. The term folk music has also come to mean singers, songwriters who write all of their own material, and don’t sing anything by anybody else. Songwriters who play the guitar and sing.

Q – Sort of like the late John Denver.
Jay – He wasn’t a writer so much though.

Q – He did write a lot of his own material.
Jay – I’m thinking of somebody else. Sorry.

Q – Jay, you and Molly met at what folk club in 1977?
Jay – The Town Crier Café.

Q – Where is that?
Molly – Duchess County. It’s moved it’s location. It’s now in Pawling, New York.
Jay – It’s probably an hour and a half from New York City.

Q – Both of you were musicians at that point?
Jay – Yes.

Q – You have your own radio show on Wame in Albany, New York?
Jay – Right.

Q – What kind of a show is it?
Molly – It’s a 90 minute “live” music program, with a “live” audience. We host the show. We play a third of the music that happens. We usually have 2 guests. Basically, everybody gets 25 minutes of music.
Jay- We like to sit in with people. The show can be heard on the Internet, on the second Wednesday of each month at 9pm at wamc.org

Q – Your music in the PBS series “The Civil War” is really what launched your career, isn’t it?
Jay – Yeah. I think prior to that we were really full-time professional musicians, but, we weren’t known outside the sub-culture of folk-music and dance music. And still-----we’re not a household word, but, through public radio and public t.v. a lot more people know about us, and we are able to do a lot more diverse work as performers and composers. We have our own website where people can learn more about us-----

Official Website:jayandmolly.com

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