Skip to main content

Singing songs to connect America and China

By Abigail Washburn, Special to CNN
updated 12:15 PM EDT, Mon April 30, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Abigail Washburn: I wanted to be study law and help improve U.S.-China relations
  • Washburn: One night I heard Doc Watson sing and my life changed
  • She says that she got a banjo and started learning music and singing Chinese songs
  • Washburn: Music is a powerful way to connect people and cultures

Editor's note: Abigail Washburn is a singer, songwriter, clawhammer banjo player and recording artist who performs in English and Chinese. She spoke at the TED2012 conference in March. TED is a nonprofit dedicated to "Ideas worth spreading," which it makes available through talks posted on its website.

(CNN) -- If you had caught me straight out of college at age 22 in the halls of the Vermont State House where I was a lobbyist-in-training and asked me what I was gonna do with my life, I would have told you that I had just passed the HSK, otherwise known as the Chinese equivalency exam, and was planning to study law at Beijing University with the intention to improve U.S.-China relations through top-down policy changes and judicial system reforms. I had it all figured out.

Little did I know how much my life would change when one night I heard Doc Watson singing "Shady Grove" from a record player in the corner of a room at a party: "Shady Grove my little love, Shady Grove my darlin', Shady Grove my little love, I'm-a-goin' back to Harlan."

The rippling trance of an old-time banjo groove, and Doc's soulful voice layered on top, the sound of merging immigrant cultures of old Ireland and Africa in Appalachia -- it was all so beautiful.

Building U.S.-China relations by banjo

And, after having been obsessed with the mammoth history and richness of Chinese culture for years, I was relieved to find something so truly beautiful that is so truly American. I knew I had to get a banjo and bring it with me to China.

TED.com: Eddi Reader sings "Kiteflyer's Hill"

Before leaving for law school in China I jumped in my little red truck, threw my newly bought old-time banjo in the back, and went on a road trip through Appalachia to learn some old-time American music. I ended up in Louisville, Kentucky, at the International Bluegrass Music Association convention. And here's where the story gets nutty: I met two girls in a hallway, I nervously played a couple of old-time songs with them and a record executive walked up and invited me to come to Nashville to make a record!

Fast-forward a year, I delayed going to law school in Beijing, and instead lived in Nashville and learned to write songs. My first song came out in English, titled "Rockabye Dixie," and my second song in Chinese, "Song of the Traveling Daughter":

门 外有个世界 (Men wai you ge shijie)

心中有个声音 (Xin zhong you ge shengyin)

四方等你来呀 (Si fang deng ni lai ya)

游女游女 (You nu you nu)

Translation:

"Outside your door the world is waiting

"Inside your heart a voice is calling

"The four corners of the world are watching

"So travel daughter, travel ... go get it girl"

It's been eight years since that miraculous night in Kentucky. I have performed in thousands of shows, including tours in China and collaborations with all kinds of inspirational musicians and artists.

TED.com: Elizabeth Gilbert on nurturing creativity

Music is a powerful way to connect cultures. I see it when I'm on a stage at a bluegrass festival in Virginia. When I look out at the sea of people in lawn chairs and bust into a song in Chinese, everybody's eyes pop wide open and they nudge their neighbor: "Is that girl singing in Chinese?" After a show, people would come up to me; everyone seems to have a story about their connection to China. And I see the power of music when I'm on stage in China: I start a Chinese song and the audience roars with delight that the blond, curly-haired girl with the banjo can sing their music.

More importantly, I see how music directly connects people's hearts. Like the time a little Chinese girl came up to me after I performed at a relocation school in Sichuan's earthquake disaster zone and asked: "Big Sister Wang, can I sing you a song that my mom sang before she was swallowed in the earthquake...?" She sat on my lap and I could feel the warmth of her body. She sang me the song, and tears started rolling down her cheeks and tears started rolling down mine. The light shining from her eyes felt like a place I could stay forever.

TED.com: Yang Lan: The generation that's remaking China

In that moment, we weren't our Chinese or our American selves. We were mortal souls sitting together in that light that keeps us here. I long to dwell in that light ... with you and everybody... and I know U.S.-China relations doesn't need another lawyer.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Abigail Washburn.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:27 PM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
The ability to manipulate media and technology has increasingly become a critical strategic resource, says Jeff Yang.
updated 11:17 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Today's politicians should follow Ronald Reagan's advice and invest in science, research and development, Fareed Zakaria says.
updated 8:19 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Artificial intelligence does not need to be malevolent to be catastrophically dangerous to humanity, writes Greg Scoblete.
updated 10:05 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Historian Douglas Brinkley says a showing of Sony's film in Austin helped keep the city weird -- and spotlighted the heroes who stood up for free expression
updated 8:03 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Tanya Odom that by calling only on women at his press conference, the President made clear why women and people of color should be more visible in boardrooms and conferences
updated 6:27 PM EST, Sat December 27, 2014
When oil spills happen, researchers are faced with the difficult choice of whether to use chemical dispersants, authors say
updated 1:33 AM EST, Thu December 25, 2014
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
updated 6:12 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
updated 8:36 AM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
updated 2:14 PM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
updated 3:27 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
updated 10:35 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
updated 7:57 AM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
updated 11:29 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
updated 4:15 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
updated 1:11 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
updated 1:08 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
updated 1:53 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
updated 3:19 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
updated 5:39 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
updated 8:12 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
updated 12:09 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
updated 6:45 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
updated 4:34 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT