TED Feature | From Appalachia to China and Back Again: Catching Up With Abigail Washburn

Posted on 7th Apr 2016


From Appalachia to China and Back Again: Catching Up With Abigail Washburn

The Grammy-winning clawhammer banjo player and singer discusses her groundbreaking blend of Mandarin and early-American Appalachian music, making music with husband Béla Fleck — and what’s next.

by Karen Frances Eng

Abigail Washburn’s voice, underlaid with the distinctive rhythms of the clawhammer banjo, is plaintive, soulful, and strong. Her sound echoes voices from deep in America’s rich musical past so effectively that you’d be forgiven for thinking she was raised in Appalachia — but that’d be before you realized she was singing in Mandarin Chinese! Washburn’s journey to making music has taken a highly unconventional path, from studying Chinese language and law to — just weeks ago — winning her first Grammy Award for Best Folk Album with her husband, bluegrass icon Béla Fleck. To celebrate, we caught up with her to get the story of how she got here.

You started out studying Chinese culture and language. That’s a pretty far cry from old-time Appalachian music! How did you get so deeply immersed in both?

It was actually partly because of my interest in China that I started exploring old-time music. When I was first introduced to traditional American music, I was studying law and Mandarin Chinese, and had become obsessed with the language. I was traveling to China and immersing myself in the culture there. At the same time, back in the United States, I was also dating a guy who played bluegrass music. I’d sing backup sometimes, just for fun. Through bluegrass, I started learning about old-time Appalachian music.

Meanwhile, people I was meeting China would ask, “Tell me about American culture — what is it, anyway?” That made me think a lot. I hadn’t spent a whole lot of time thinking about the heritage of America, having grown up in suburbs of DC and Minneapolis and Chicago. What I knew of as culture was the radio and my public schools and strip malls and working at a pizza place. But when I heard that old-time Appalachian music, I thought, “You know? This is a real window into early America, and where we come from culturally.”

Watch Abigail Washburn’s TED Talk: she tells a moving story of the remarkable connections she’s formed touring across the
United States and China while playing banjo and singing in Chinese.

What are the origins of Appalachian music, anyway?

When I think of old-time Appalachian music, I think of the banjo—which is the sound of African traditions, because the instrument, which hails from Gambia, was brought over on the slave ships. One of the most tragic stories I’ve ever heard was that slave traders started to realize that if they had instrumentalists playing on the slave ships from their homelands in Gambia or Mali, more of their cargo would live to the other side of the ocean. It speaks to the power of music — and it speaks to the wretchedness of humanity. People’s spirits would just attach to the sound and stay in place, despite the absolute deepest anguish. But Appalachia and the South got quite an influx of instrumentalists from West Africa as a result, helping to create the unique and poignant sound we still hear today.

The sound of the banjo is like a Chinese word — with articulation at the front when striking the string and open resonance at the back, like an open vowel.

Another major contributor to Appalachian music is the sound that came to the United States with the earliest immigrants from Scotland, Ireland and England, who brought old ballads and fiddle tunes. So West African banjos and lyrics and melodies from the British Isles met up in Appalachia, becoming the trance-like melodic explosion of beauty that we know now as old-time Appalachian music. And from this new sound spawned the roots of blues, jazz, folk, country and rock music.

You clearly decided to abandon law and devote yourself to music. What was the turning point for you?

This is a piece of my story that I don’t often get to tell, and it’s a big deal. I went on an Insight Meditation retreat for five days. During that time, I went into a deep state of meditation for about six hours — and when I came out of it, it felt like time had stopped, and everything had disappeared. My whole shirt was covered with tears and snot. I knew that I’d somehow let go of something. And I realized that every single action I make is a choice to move in a certain direction. This might sound obvious, but from what I see, people don’t often think about the direction they’re headed when they act—the intention and the precedent they’re setting for their lives—instead tending to think more that they are victims of circumstance. The experience made me ready for whatever it was my purpose was — and I was open to different possibilities.

So weeks later, I found myself in West Virginia, at a fiddler’s convention. It was the first time I’d played banjo and sang a few songs I knew in public, and people just really responded to me. They said, “You sound like old Aunt Molly Jackson, you sound like Ginny Hawker.” These are the elder women of old-time Appalachian music, and the audiences were moved by me. I’d never thought of myself that way before.

Bear in mind that I still only knew four or five songs, and was still very much a beginner. Yet very soon after this, I began, to my surprise, to be approached to record. My plan had been to move to Nashville to be with my boyfriend before I’d go off to law school in China. While in Nashville, I got offered another record deal. A woman in line at a coffee shop said, “I like your shirt.” I said, “Oh, thanks.” She asked if I was a musician, and I said I wasn’t sure — but that I did play a little banjo and sang a few songs. She said she worked for a record label, and asked me to send her a demo. I was like, “I don’t have a demo.” And she said, “Well, make a demo and send it to me!”

So I sat down and I wrote a couple songs for that demo, and the first one came out in English. “Oh, rock-a-bye, my dixie child” — that was my first one. When I wrote the second one, I happened to be reading a Chinese poem, so I wrote the song in Chinese.

Was writing songs in Mandarin a conscious decision on your part? Or did they just come out that way?

For me, it was very, very natural. I know it seems like an unnatural progression for a young white girl from the suburbs of the United States of America. But it was what I was loving, it was what I was reading, it was what I cared about most deeply and honestly: Chinese language, Chinese culture, and Chinese poetry.

Half of my songs came out in English, half of them in Chinese. Meanwhile, I decided to go with the record label. Amazingly, it was receptive to the songs in Mandarin. They said, “Chinese? Great! We want you to share that, it’s beautiful.” So that was my first record, Song of the Traveling Dghter.

Appalachian in Mandarin: listen to the title track of Abigail Washburn’s first album, Song of the Traveling Daughter.

When you sing in Mandarin, the language fits very harmoniously within the music. Is there a similarity between Chinese music and Appalachian music that helps make them complementary?

Yes, the pentatonic scale is just a basic part of most early music traditions around the world. When we think about folk music, the early stuff is really just things people find around them, you know — like gourds, or wood, or hide from animals, and animal guts that are made into strings. I’m not a musicologist, my understanding is that all vibrating strings, regardless of material, have certain properties from which pentatonic scales arise, although the intonation of scales derived from the harmonics of strings differs somewhat from those of Western temperament.

In any case, once I started traveling to China to perform, I fairly quickly realized that the simple, old folk songs of both cultures were very compatible, especially if I played in the pentatonic mountain modal tuning.

But the sound of the banjo also really fits nicely with Chinese language. For example, if you think about Chinese, the basic unit of language is monosyllabic, and most words start with a consonant and have a vowel at the end. In other words, they’re open. The sound of the banjo is like a Chinese word—with articulation at the front when striking the string and open resonance at the back, like an open vowel.

It can go in many directions: I’ve translated a number of songs from the Appalachian repertoire into Chinese, and I share those with Chinese audiences, to get them to sing along. I’ve learned Chinese songs themselves, for performing to Chinese people. I’ve taken melodies inspired by China and added English words. I’ve taken sort of poppy, indie folk-sounding things and added Chinese words to that.

Abigail Washburn performing with folk-singing majors at Sichuan University music school in 2008.

How did you start performing in China?

A friend named Jon Campbell used to produce open mic nights at various places, and he booked me some shows, so I asked a couple musicians I knew in Nashville to come along. We slept on friends’ couches all over China, and ended up doing a three-week tour of China, completely independently.

When we got there, I thought, Oh, it’d be so fun to play with Chinese musicians,” so I would just seek them out. I’ve done 14 tours of China now, and some of them are really long — six weeks, eight weeks — and sometimes I’d teach workshops at different universities. I’d just take everybody up on the opportunities they’d throw my way.

I finally hit the jackpot when the embassy in Beijing and the American consulates around China found out about me. With their support, I got to do a massive Silk Road tour for almost five weeks. We toured all the way from Beijing across to Kyrgyzstan with my five-piece band called The Village, and it was phenomenal. I didn’t have to worry about money or tour managing for once, which was so great.

Has being married to Béla Fleck changed how you write and perform, or are you each on your own individual paths?

For many years, up until we had a child, we were very much on our own individual paths, writing and touring separately, but would often run our stuff by each other. We didn’t want to go changing each other, though we participated in each other’s creative process. Once we had a baby, though, we decided we probably needed to hit the road together, so that we wouldn’t have to be apart.

When we were first asked to play at the same show, we had never played as a duo before—but how can you say no to your grandma who wants you to play a benefit for her church? We only had one night to decide what to play. We thought, if worse came to worst, he’d play alone for half an hour, and I’d play alone for half an hour. But actually, when we sat down, we came up with so much stuff that we played onstage together for almost two hours, and had so much fun. After that show, we looked at each other and said, “I guess we’re going to have to do this some day.”

“And Am I Born To Die,” written in the 18th century by Charles Wesley, performed by Béla Fleck & Abigail Washburn
on their eponymous Grammy-award winning album.

Because, “Why not?”

“Why not?” is a good point. But before we had our baby, I was concerned that if I went on the road with Béla, I’d be the unknown one. I wanted to go out into the world and prove myself more. I wanted to know I had the ability to do this on my own. Once I had a good career going, we started playing live together at venues all over the world, and it’s been the most exciting thing. The music is a joy for us to create together, and it’s been amazing how two banjos and a vocal actually works out great. And it warms and invigorates both of us that people actually want to hear us play together.

Creative energy is transformative. It just softens everybody’s hearts; it opens people.

One complication was adding an infant to the whole scenario — not for the faint of heart! There was so much reimagining, reorganizing and rethinking about our daily lives we had to do. But at the same time, we were making a record together, we were touring together all the time. We were forced to be intimate and discuss all of the things that were difficult for us. So I’m grateful for that. But I would definitely encourage people, if they’re thinking about starting a new project, do it before the baby comes out, and not after. [Laughter]

Is old-time Appalachian music still passed down as an oral tradition?

Most of the community learns by sitting and listening, so in that sense, yes, it’s still very much an oral tradition. In the folk tradition, people are thrilled to be able to pass along what’s important to them. I can barely read music. I got my foundation in Appalachian and old-time music by jumping on tour with an all-female string band for six years. I also learned from fiddler Rayna Gellert, banjo player Riley Baugus and singer Ginny Hawker, who taught me about the primitive Baptist singing tradition.

What do you see for your future, and for the future of this kind of music?

One of the things I’ve thought for a long time is that culture’s missing from the diplomatic conversation. When Chinese diplomats come to the US and there are important conversations going on, a huge piece of it should be sharing beautiful art that spans China and America. I’ve always thought, oh gosh, if only I could perform with a Chinese band for some high-level officials when they come through Washington, DC. Shouldn’t there be something cross-collaborative and truly beautiful that happens during important diplomatic talks? I believe harmonious collaboration represented in music is symbolic and powerful and can impact outcomes in other areas of existence. Creative energy is transformative. It just softens everybody’s hearts; it opens people.

But I don’t see this music waning away. I actually see whole new generations just so fond of this music and holding to it, and 20-year-olds that have a puritanical stance on what old-time music should sound like. People are passionate about it. I’m now becoming an older person in the tradition, and I’m very much enjoying seeing all the new, young fresh blood coming through, and I think: “This is powerful, it’s beautiful, it’s social, it’s cultural, it drives me to want to share this with the rest of the world.”