06:35
TED2012

Abigail Washburn: Building US-China relations ... by banjo

Filmed:

TED Fellow Abigail Washburn wanted to be a lawyer improving US-China relations -- until she picked up a banjo. She tells a moving story of the remarkable connections she's formed touring across the United States and China while playing that banjo and singing in Chinese.

- Clawhammer banjo player
Abigail Washburn pairs venerable folk elements with far-flung sounds, creating results that feel both strangely familiar and unlike anything anybody's ever heard before. Full bio

If you had caught me straight out of college
00:15
in the halls of the Vermont State House
00:17
where I was a lobbyist in training
00:19
and asked me what I was going to do with my life,
00:22
I would have told you
00:24
that I'd just passed the Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi,
00:26
the Chinese equivalency exam,
00:28
and I was going to go study law in Beijing,
00:30
and I was going to improve U.S.-China relations
00:33
through top-down policy changes
00:37
and judicial system reforms.
00:39
(Laughter)
00:41
(Applause)
00:44
I had a plan,
00:46
and I never ever thought
00:49
it would have anything to do
00:52
with the banjo.
00:54
Little did I know
00:58
what a huge impact it would have on me one night
01:00
when I was at a party
01:02
and I heard a sound coming out of a record player
01:04
in the corner of a room.
01:06
And it was Doc Watson
01:08
singing and playing "Shady Grove."
01:10
♫ Shady Grove, my little love ♫
01:13
♫ Shady Grove, my darlin' ♫
01:15
♫ Shady Grove, my little love ♫
01:17
♫ Going back to Harlan ♫
01:20
That sound was just so beautiful,
01:24
the sound of Doc's voice
01:27
and the rippling groove of the banjo.
01:29
And after being totally and completely obsessed
01:33
with the mammoth richness and history
01:37
of Chinese culture,
01:39
it was like this total relief
01:41
to hear something so truly American
01:45
and so truly awesome.
01:48
I knew I had to take a banjo with me to China.
01:51
So before going to law school in China
01:56
I bought a banjo, I threw it in my little red truck
01:58
and I traveled down through Appalachia
02:01
and I learned a bunch of old American songs,
02:04
and I ended up in Kentucky
02:06
at the International Bluegrass Music Association Convention.
02:08
And I was sitting in a hallway one night
02:11
and a couple girls came up to me.
02:14
And they said, "Hey, do you want to jam?"
02:16
And I was like, "Sure."
02:18
So I picked up my banjo
02:20
and I nervously played four songs that I actually knew with them.
02:22
And a record executive walked up to me
02:25
and invited me to Nashville, Tennessee to make a record.
02:27
(Laughter)
02:30
It's been eight years,
02:37
and I can tell you that I didn't go to China to become a lawyer.
02:41
In fact, I went to Nashville.
02:45
And after a few months I was writing songs.
02:47
And the first song I wrote was in English,
02:50
and the second one was in Chinese.
02:52
(Music)
02:56
[Chinese]
02:59
Outside your door the world is waiting.
03:09
Inside your heart a voice is calling.
03:11
The four corners of the world are watching,
03:13
so travel daughter, travel.
03:15
Go get it, girl.
03:18
(Applause)
03:20
It's really been eight years since that fated night in Kentucky.
03:29
And I've played thousands of shows.
03:33
And I've collaborated
03:35
with so many incredible, inspirational musicians around the world.
03:37
And I see the power of music.
03:41
I see the power of music
03:43
to connect cultures.
03:45
I see it when I stand on a stage
03:47
in a bluegrass festival in east Virginia
03:49
and I look out at the sea of lawn chairs
03:51
and I bust out into a song in Chinese.
03:53
[Chinese]
03:56
And everybody's eyes just pop wide open
03:59
like it's going to fall out of their heads.
04:02
And they're like, "What's that girl doing?"
04:05
And then they come up to me after the show
04:07
and they all have a story.
04:10
They all come up and they're like,
04:12
"You know, my aunt's sister's babysitter's dog's chicken went to China
04:14
and adopted a girl."
04:18
And I tell you what, it like everybody's got a story.
04:20
It's just incredible.
04:24
And then I go to China
04:27
and I stand on a stage at a university
04:29
and I bust out into a song in Chinese
04:32
and everybody sings along
04:34
and they roar with delight
04:37
at this girl
04:39
with the hair and the instrument,
04:41
and she's singing their music.
04:43
And I see, even more importantly,
04:47
the power of music to connect hearts.
04:51
Like the time I was in Sichuan Province
04:54
and I was singing for kids in relocation schools
04:57
in the earthquake disaster zone.
05:00
And this little girl comes up to me.
05:02
[Chinese]
05:05
"Big sister Wong,"
05:11
Washburn, Wong, same difference.
05:13
"Big sister Wong, can I sing you a song
05:17
that my mom sang for me
05:20
before she was swallowed in the earthquake?"
05:22
And I sat down,
05:26
she sat on my lap.
05:28
She started singing her song.
05:30
And the warmth of her body
05:33
and the tears rolling down her rosy cheeks,
05:36
and I started to cry.
05:40
And the light that shone off of her eyes
05:43
was a place I could have stayed forever.
05:47
And in that moment, we weren't our American selves,
05:51
we weren't our Chinese selves,
05:54
we were just mortals
05:56
sitting together in that light that keeps us here.
06:00
I want to dwell in that light
06:05
with you and with everyone.
06:09
And I know U.S.-China relations
06:11
doesn't need another lawyer.
06:13
Thank you.
06:15
(Applause)
06:17

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About the Speaker:

Abigail Washburn - Clawhammer banjo player
Abigail Washburn pairs venerable folk elements with far-flung sounds, creating results that feel both strangely familiar and unlike anything anybody's ever heard before.

Why you should listen
If American old-time music is about adopting earlier, simpler ways of life and music-making, Abigail has proven herself a bracing challenge to that tradition. A singing, songwriting, Chinese-speaking, Illinois-born, Nashville-based, clawhammer banjo player, Abigail is every bit as interested in the present and the future as she is in the past, and every bit as attuned to the global as she is to the local. From the recovery zones of earthquake-shaken Sichuan to the hollers of Tennessee, she pairs venerable folk elements with far-flung sounds, and the results feel both strangely familiar and unlike anything anybody’s ever heard before. To put it another way, she changes what seems possible.
More profile about the speaker
Abigail Washburn | Speaker | TED.com