The Tune Is Out There

by Cantor Eric Schulmiller

As a cantor, this is something I intuitively know, but the surprising power of song was reinforced for me last week in two distinct ways. The first was a delightful detective case, inspired by a song playing in the background of a 25-year-old episode of the X-Files – a haunting country love song written from the perspective of an alien abductee to the alien who left them behind. For decades, fans of the show, and that song in particular, had been searching in vain for any information about the song – who wrote it, who performed it and was it ever released commercially? X-Files was known for incorporating music written specifically for the show which sounded like popular music but was not played or distributed outside of the episodes in question. So even with the power of the internet, die-hard fans had hit dead end after dead end. Then, this week, an intrepid Twitter user (ironically renamed X?) started a new search and was able to locate the music supervisor of that episode, who was able to find an old music cue sheet, and identify and reach out to the potential composers of that song through a mutual friend who had seen the thread go viral online. Finally, after years of frustration, X marked the spot! The long-sought-after songwriters: L.A.-based musician Dan Marfisi and Glenn Jordan, a film-score composer and former member of Sha-Na-Na. What amazes me about this story is the power of one simple song, played for a few seconds in the background of an average episode of a long-canceled TV show, to remain in the hearts and minds of devoted fans for years. If you’d like to follow the next chapter in this story, see the excellent article in Rolling Stone here.

The second example is much more personal. Having just returned from our annual synagogue school retreat at the Ashokan Center in Olivebridge, NY, I reflected on how one piece of music, written by a Jewish composer, saved this special place from destruction and allowed countless students, including hundreds from RSNS, to enjoy this amazing oasis every year. Like many good stories, this one has lots of twists and turns (you can read the full version, framed at Ashokan, here). Here’s the Reader’s Digest version: In 1982, musician Jay Unger (a self-described “Jew from The Bronx”) wrote and performed a poignant melody expressing a feeling that many of our children know all too well: the bittersweet sadness at the end of summer camp. In this case, the camp in question was Ashokan’s annual fiddle and dance camp, and the song was Ashokan Farewell, which you may recognize as the musical centerpiece of Ken Burns’ documentary series, Civil War, where various arrangements of this tune played for nearly an hour of the eleven-hour series. When Ungar heard in 2006 that the Ashokan Campus was in danger of being sold, and the facilities closed, he reached out to then-Governor Pataki, who remembered hearing Ungar play the song at a Gettysburg tribute years earlier. Pataki was so moved by the memory, that he pulled some high-level strings, and within a short period of time, a new non-profit was formed that was able to shepherd the Ashokan property into the 21st century, complete with new buildings that our RSNS children have enjoyed ever since.

Who knows what melody will touch someone deeply enough to motivate them to search far and wide for its origins, or inspire a community to preserve its valuable resources? I am grateful for the many opportunities I am blessed to make music with all of you and to share melodies that help make us who we are, and who we aspire to be.

With best wishes for a harmonious Hanukkah,

Cantor Eric