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
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
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,
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
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-----
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