What Do China And The Banjo Have In Common?
Part 3 of the TED Radio Hour episode The Creative Process.
About Abigail Washburn's TEDTalk
TED Fellow Abigail Washburn wanted to be a lawyer working on U.S.-China relations — until she picked up a banjo. In this TEDTalk, 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.
About Abigail Washburn
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. If American old-time music is about adopting earlier, simpler ways of life and music-making, Washburn has proven herself a challenge to that tradition.
A singing, songwriting, Chinese-speaking, Illinois-born, Nashville-based, clawhammer banjo player, she is every bit as interested in the present and the future as in the past, and every bit as attuned to the global as the local. From the recovery zones of earthquake-shaken Sichuan to the hollers of Tennessee, Washburn pairs venerable folk elements with far-flung sounds. The results feel both strangely familiar and unlike anything anybody's ever heard before. To put it another way, she changes what seems possible.
ALISON STEWART, HOST:
This is the TED RADIO HOUR from NPR. I'm Alison Stewart.
Today on the program, we've been talking about the creative process, where we find our inspiration. Our next guest had to travel halfway across the world to find her voice.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "BANJO PICKIN' GIRL")
ABIGAIL WASHBURN: Goin' to North Carolina baby mine. Goin' to North Carolina baby mine. Goin' to North Carolina and from there off to China. I'm goin; off to China baby mine.
STEWART: Abigail Washburn is a banjo player who performed earlier this year at TED. But being a musician wasn't the career she first had in mind. After traveling through China during college, she fell in love with the country and the idea of becoming a lawyer in Beijing.
WASBURN: And I was dead set on doing that. And, basically, within a period of thinking I was headed off to law school in Beijing, I heard the sound of Doc Watson singing and playing "Shady Grove."
(Singing) Shady Grove, my little love. Shady Grove, my darling. Shady Grove, my little love. Going back to Harlem.
And I thought the sound was so beautiful. And, after being completely obsessed with Chinese culture for eight years, I was so relieved and so excited to hear something so distinctly American and so completely beautiful. And I knew that I had to buy a banjo and take it with me to China.
So before I left for China, I went on this - this road trip through Appalachia and I studied banjo tunes at a fiddlers' gathering in West Virginia. And I ended up at the International Bluegrass Music Association convention in Louisville, Kentucky. And I thought, OK, here we go, this is my last little slice of America before I'm off to China.
And I was sitting in a hallway one night and a few young women came up to me and asked me if I wanted to jam. And I was literally timidly jamming out on the four songs, five songs I knew. And I got offered a record deal. Some record executive walked up to me from Nashville, Tennessee and said come on down to Nashville and cut a record.
And I'm, I guess you could say, the Chinese-speaking, banjo-picking girl.
STEWART: Some of your most innovative work is the way you blend Chinese language and the clawhammer banjo. It was really such an unusual sensation when you took the stage at TED in 2012. Let's listen to a little bit of that performance.
(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK ARCHIVE RECORDING "BUILDING US-CHINA RELATIONS")
WASBURN: (Singing in Chinese)
STEWART: What was it that made you feel so connected with China and Chinese culture that you thought, you know what, I am going to incorporate this into my music?
WASBURN: Well, for me, that's simple. It was that China came first. China had a few years on folk music. So as soon as I started playing music, you know, as soon as that record executive walked up to me and offered me a record deal and I started becoming a professional musician, my first song I wrote was in English and my second one was literally in Chinese. It went...
(Singing in Chinese).
And that means (Chinese language spoken), outside your door the world is waiting. (Chinese language spoken), inside your heart a voice is calling. (Chinese language spoken), the four corners of the world are waiting. (Chinese language spoken), so go get it, girl. Travel, daughter, travel.
So, for me, my creative inspiration was also in Chinese.
STEWART: Abigail, did you know you were a creative person before you settled into your music career?
WASBURN: I don't think I really thought about it that way. And, even now, I have - I've been able to have really interesting discussions with my other friends who are artists and musicians about what creativity really is. Is it an original idea? Or is it something where you literally are creative collages? You're taking pieces of the world that you see around you and that are inside of you and - and put them together in a way that you - you see fit.
And then all of a sudden you have something that maybe sounds a bit unique. But does that make it an original idea? These are a lot of the conversations I have late at night, especially with my, like, collaborator right now that I'm on the road with, Kai Welch. We will sort of try to keep ourselves awake late at night, at four in the morning, trying to finish that drive from one city to the next. And we'll - we'll get into this.
And I - I'm definitely a believer in the - that creativity is actually more like a collaging. And I suppose I've done that my whole life. I would say I've always lived creativity but now I - I do it with an intention that's got a completely different power.
STEWART: We'll talk about collaboration in a minute, but first we'd love to hear some music. Maybe hear "City of Refuge," the title cut from your most recent release?
WASBURN: Yeah, here we go.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "CITY OF REFUGE")
WASBURN: (Singing) I got a mother, I got a father. Diamond rations, stark white collar. She looks good, he makes the dollars. I'm just free to do what I want to. I gotta run, run, run, run. Run to the City of Refuge. Where everyone is mating. I gotta run. I gotta run. Where there's a mother, where there's a father. Adam's on the roof and Eve is in the gutter. Eden's on the far side where the circle started.
(Singing) Run, run, run! Run to the City of Refuge. Where everyone is mating. Oh, the City of Refuge. Where everyone is mating. Oh the City of Refuge. Where our burdens lay in the towns. Where we came from.
STEWART: That's Abigail Washburn and the "City of Refuge." Listening to you play the banjo and, I think, anybody who's played a musical instrument, you know that it takes practice and it takes hard work to learn an instrument and to master it like that. So I'm curious about your thoughts on the relationship between discipline and creativity. The discipline to learn the instrument and then the ability to let yourself be creative with it. What are your thoughts on that?
WASBURN: I'm not a trained musician. All I've been able to figure out from this is that we're only as great as our ability to negotiate and take advantage of our limitations.
WASBURN: And so I've decided my limitations are not only OK, but they're an incredible opportunity to think about what it is I can do with what I have. And so I try to temper continually my technical growth on my instrument and with my voice, with what I know I have to give already, which is an open heart, a searching heart.
So, as I'm trying to advance and use discipline to become a better technical musician and even create moments and periods of time in my life where - where I have the - the open time and space to practice and become better, I'm also trying to remember that it's living life and feeling empathy. And having hope and a mission that really makes the music meaningful.
STEWART: So Abigail, we're going to give you artist's choice. Tell us what song you're going to play and why you chose it.
WASBURN: I'm going to choose an old-time tune that comes from Blind Willy Johnson and his song that he recorded in the 1930s called "Nobody's Fault But Mine."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "NOBODY'S FAULT BUT MINE")
WASBURN: (Singing) Nobody's fauit but mine. Nobody's fault but mine. If I die and my soul be lost, it's nobody's fault but mine.
(Singing) I had a mother who could pray. I had a mother who could pray. She prayed all day, and into the night, I had a mother who could pray. Nobody's fault but mine. Nobody's fault but mine. If I die and my soul be lost, nobody's fault but mine.
(Singing) I had a mother who could sing. I had a mother who could sing. She sang all day, and into the night. I had a mother who could sing. Nobody's fault but mine. Nobody's fault but mine. If I die and my soul be lost, nobody's fault but mine. Nobody, nobody's fault but mine. Nobody's fault but mine. If I die and my soul be lost, if I die and my soul be lost, if I die ... nobody's fault but mine.
STEWART: That's Abigail Washburn, who's joining us on the TED RADIO HOUR. And the theme this hour is the creative process. Abigail, is there any environment that really helps you tap into your creativity when you need to write or you need to think about lyrics?
WASBURN: Yeah, it's a - a big reason why I just sang that song. Something that's really, really powerful for me when I need a new idea is I listen to the old ones.
WASBURN: I go turn on Blind Willy Johnson or I go get my "Goodbye Babylon" box set and I start listening to old preachers preach. Or I listen to old speeches. Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech always sends me down some path, some trajectory of some creative idea. Yeah, I listen to the old to get an idea for the new.
STEWART: When you performed at TED, you chose to perform a song - you did it a cappella - called "Dreams Of Nectar".
(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK ARCHIVE RECORDING "BUILDING US-CHINA RELATIONS")
WASBURN: (Singing) The first day I stepped foot in this fair country, Boarder man took my paper, told me I would be free. Boarder man took my paper, told me I was now free.
STEWART: Share with us a little bit why you chose that to perform at TED and a little bit of the back story.
WASBURN: "Dreams of Nectar" is a song that began a long time before any of those lyrics or melodies came to me. I chose to share it at TED because such a huge part of what I do and what I care about, is people's stories and how they relate to how we're globalizing and changing in the world. And this one particular song has a story connected to it that is - harkens back to my time when I was - still thought I was going to be studying law in China and I was studying for the HSK, living in Montpelier, Vermont.
And I just couldn't stop thinking about China and wasn't getting my fix, you know?
WASBURN: So it ended up that, who would have thought it, but at the local Chinese restaurant, the China Star, there was seven Chinese men working away. And they all had come to America to earn money to send back to their families in the hope that some day they'd be able to bring their families over to America to be with them.
And I - I learned this because I became their English as a second language teacher. And there was one guy in particular in the group that was having just a terrible time learning English and I - I decided to invite him over to my house once a week to get some extra - extra work done on his English. And he showed up at the door one night and then I suddenly noticed that he was crying.
And I said (Chinese language spoken), what's wrong? And he held out his hand and it had a - a piece of paper in it and he said (Chinese language spoken), look for yourself. So I opened up the letter and it was from his wife back in Fujian province. And it said (Chinese language spoken), you've already been in America for four years. (Chinese language spoken), I'm afraid you're not ever going to come back to China.
(Chinese language spoken), and I'm afraid your child and I are never going to be able to come to America to be with you. (Chinese language spoken), we're going to start a new life without you. Consider this the end.
And he cried and cried and I watched him. And I didn't know what to do with that, until I started writing songs.
STEWART: Let's listen to a little bit of Abigail Washburn at TED 2012 with "Dreams of Nectar."
(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK ARCHIVE RECORDING "BUILDING US-CHINA RELATIONS")
WASBURN: (Singing) I'm just old now, all alone. In a land of fertile lives. I see my unborn babies and tired birds in the sky. I see my unborn babies, tired birds in the sky. Before I die, grant me one thing. Grant one thing to me. Don't let me dream of nectar. Just make me fruit on the tree.
STEWART: In doing press for this most recent release, "City of Refuge," you described your writing process as evolving and that initially it was a very private thing. So how is it going, evolving from that very private solo space into the rest of the world?
WASBURN: I've noticed that the more I open up, the more I learn. So I'm incredibly grateful for that. But I'm - I'm not going to lie. I can feel really vulnerable and kind of scared sometimes when I sit down to write in any kind of situation that invites a collaborator in. But I think that - maybe that adds an electricity to the situation, an excitement, a vulnerability that maybe brings something to the music that wouldn't be there otherwise.
So, one of the reasons I probably have remained somewhat private about it is perhaps a point of pride, but I don't want to become someone who writes a song simply for the sake of the craft of writing song. I really want every song to be filled with that extremely human element of longing for it to take something to the world.
So I come to every song with a - a - a huge amount of intention, although I've had a couple of friends say to me, who are good songwriters, say hey, why don't you just start writing songs and don't worry about whether they're good or not?
Maybe they're right. I'll keep thinking about that.
STEWART: Maybe they're not.
WASBURN: Maybe they're not.
STEWART: Abigail Washburn, it was a pleasure speaking and listening to you. Thank you so much for your time.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICIAN PLAYING BANJO)
WASBURN: Thank you so much for having me, Alison.
STEWART: I'm Alison Stewart. You've been listening to ideas worth spreading on the TED RADIO HOUR from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.