Yes, you read that right: Appalachina.
A blending of Appalachia and China.
Which is a perfect description of the music of Abigail Washburn, a Mandarin-speaking claw-hammer banjo player whose work blends the musical folk traditions of China and the Appalachian region of the American South.
My first exposure to Washburn’s music was with the release of the 2008 album Abigail Washburn and the Sparrow Quartet, featuring renowned banjo-ist Béla Fleck (now her husband), cellist Ben Sollee, and fiddler Casey Driessen.
I’m not sure if my other two children didn’t notice, didn’t care, or were just going with it, but when listening to Track 5 of this album at some point in recent years, it was my middle child who piped up from the back seat:
Is the lady singing this song in Spanish or German?
Actually, it’s Chinese: Washburn sings the entire song in Mandarin. Titled Taiyang Chulai, the arrangement of this Chinese folk song opens with a delicate cascading intro before coming on strong with a driving rock that carries out the song.
It remains my daughter’s second favorite song on this album, after Banjo-Pickin’ Girl. But who can blame her? Banjo-Pickin’ Girl is a fun, uptempo traditional bluegrass song about a world-class traveling girl. Below is a video clip of a performance of this song by my amazingly talented cousin Bryan Ailey and his awesome weekender bluegrass band the Hey Boys playing at a festival in Galax, Virginia.
[My cousin is the overall-wearing guitar-player slightly left of center.]
Introduction: The music of Washburn defies classification. It is old-timey bluegrass and avant-garde indie rock. It is Appalachian gospel and Kungfu folk, bluesy twang and eastern ambiance. A challenge to convention and a stride in keeping with tradition.
The New York Times has described it as a “[mingling of] Appalachia and folk-pop, with tinges of Asia and Bruce Springsteen.” Washburn herself calls it “progressive folk.” Of course, I kind of like Appalachinese.
Pairing the earthy, soulful sounds of old-time Appalachian music with the ethereal, enigmatic sensibilities of Chinese folk music, Washburn’s songs feel at the same time achingly familiar and hauntingly strange.
So far, each album includes a mix of original songs and new arrangements of traditional songs–both American and Chinese. For example, Washburn joins the likes Blind Wille Johnson, Nina Simone, and Pops Staples–even Led Zeppelin– with a soul-crying version of Nobody’s Fault but Mine on her first album, and later albums feature covers of gospel blues classics like Strange Things, Bright Morning Stars, and And Am I Born to Die. Similarly included are songs sung entirely in Chinese such as The Lost Lamb, Kangding Qingge, and Journey Home–some original, some traditional.
I think this summary of Washburn’s music nails it:
“Washburn’s M.O. as an artist has always been cultural exchange…This sets [her] apart from other indie/folk crossovers because Washburn recognizes indie rock as its own tradition with its own set of rules: namely, careful attention to texture and a command of an eclectic array of genres…Washburn stays in her territory and lets her collaborators respond from theirs. This is not a bid for relevance or wider appeal, nor is it a betrayal of her traditional roots; it’s a conversation. And it’s a conversation that gets interesting.”****
Having studied Mandarin in college and preparing for a legal career China, Washburn embarked on trip through the Appalachians before she was to move overseas. Within a few weeks she was playing the banjo in a hotel hallway in Louisville, Kentucky, where she was offered a recording contract on the spot. She has been making music professionally ever since.
Washburn’s early career included a spot in the all-time old-timey string band Uncle Earl, where Washburn honed her playing skills. The release of her 2005 solo album Song of the Traveling Daughter (whose title track is sung in Chinese and was inspired by the traditional Chinese poem Song of the Traveling Son) propelled her to fame and its production put her in interaction with pioneering artists in the Nashville music scene, most notably Béla Fleck, who has been called the most influential banjo player in the world–and who is now her husband.
Three years later came the release of the aforementioned Abigail Washburn & the Sparrow Quartet. This mind-bending fusion of unparalleled musical virtuoso is an uncontested a pinnacle milestone from this bluegrass chamber group. Its follow-up album City of Refuge features scores of artists including but certainly not limited to bassist Victor Krauss (who’s accompanied just about everybody); electric guitarist and veteran world-performer Bill Frisell; and producer–and here percussionist–Tucker Martine, of The Decemberists and My Morning Jacket and, oh, the music industry generally.
Aside from her current album–a self-titled banjo-only record with husband Fleck–Washburn’s more recent endeavors have included collaborative work with Kai Welch and Wu Fei–a trio sometimes known as the Wu Force (both performers were also among those recorded on City of Refuge). With Washburn on banjo, Fei on the guzheng, and Welch on, well, pretty much everything else, the sound of the Wu Force is enigmatic and emotive, down-home and far-flung, as beautifully exemplified in this video performance of Dreams of Nectar (from City of Refuge).
Video courtesy of YouTube ~ World Music Festival/Schubas, Chicago, Ill. /11 Sept. 2014.
Cultural Landscape ~ Southerly & Chinese-ly: Although culture is a tough thing to define, certain characteristics are generally considered to make up a cultural landscape, and music is primary among them (so are house form, religion, attitudes, and diet, if you were wondering).
Folk music itself can be equally hard to pin down. Most folk music tends to incorporate songs of unknown authorship played by untrained everyday musicians and passed down orally (often with considerable variation) through the generations of a particular people group or region (usually rural). The songs themselves tend to be simple in nature, in form repeating two primary musical elements and in content relating historical or personal events or religious beliefs. Folk music is usually strong on traditions and customs and is commonly performed during ceremonies and festivals.
Being folk music, both music types pretty much include the qualities mentioned above, but they go beyond that in their likeness. When considering–and listening to–the folk music of Appalachia and of various Chinese traditions, the actual sound of the music is almost disarmingly striking–haunting, simplistic, poignant, at times airy beautiful, other times dynamic and gritty. Even some of the instrumentation is similar–the banjo and the fiddle a balance similar to the pipa and the erhu.
Washburn herself has commented on the interplay of song elements between folk music of both cultures:
“Uncomplex harmony is a big piece of a lot of folk music. I can’t say that across the board, but in what I’ve heard of most ethnic Chinese forms of folk music and American folk music, it’s simple chord structure behind really powerful grooves. That’s not true of [all] Chinese traditional folk music…there are 56 different ethnicities in China! So, the Uyghurs and the Mongolians and the Tibetans, they have incredibly strong groove-oriented folk music. It’s simplistic harmonically, which is perfect for old-time American music. It’s trancey, vibey, groovy, in one mode, and it stays there. And if it changes chords it’s not a big deal. You can just jam out on it forever.” *
Instrument Spotlight: Banjo & Guzheng
I love love LOVE the pairing and juxtaposition of these two instruments. Both are indigenous to their respective regions, both integral to their folk traditions. But they represent the opposite ends of the cultural spectrum: the banjo typifying the “low” culture of the vernacular, of the common and the quotidian, of the less educated and well-to-do; and the guzheng representing the “high” culture of the elite, of the highly skilled and esteemed. The sister instrument of the guzheng, the guqin, is considered “to be superior to all other instruments in depth and strength of expression.” ***
The banjo, though an instrument probably of African origin, has come to be associated with the rural white South, particularly Appalachia, where few blacks traditionally lived, so there is much curiosity as to how the instrument came to be prominent in that area. An early form of the banjo, it is believed, was invented in Africa from a gourd. These days, a banjo usually has 5 strings and is played with both hands: the left hand works the strings on the neck using such methods as barring and sliding while the right hand plays the strings across the round part of the instrument. Two popular playing styles are the clawhammer (a downward striking motion) and finger-picking.** [For more about banjos and banjo-making, visit my cousin-in-law’s blog BanjoCraft (the author is married to the sister of the aforementioned guitar-player. Yes, the force is strong is that family).]
One of China’s oldest plucked string instruments, the guzheng is sometimes called the King of Instruments. Typically made of mahogany or red sandalwood, the modern guzheng usually has 21 strings and is played with both hands: the right hand plays the strings using such methods as strumming, picking, and wiping while the left hands controls pitch and vibrato by sliding, pressing, and kneading. ***
Eight  Tracks
My personal picks & favorites
The following songs are my top recommendations for your pleasure and edification. This list is of personal favorites, not necessarily of the songs that most display both Chinese and Southern elements. Rankings are based really on my subjective perspective of mind-bending musicality and just plain fun.
1 • Captain ~ Track 7, Abigail Washburn & The Sparrow Quartet ~
For me, this is one of those songs that was life-altering. Right up there with Led Zeppelin’s When the Levee Breaks (which, seriously, must be–has to be–somehow Southern in origin). This tune opens with a bright, searching intro followed by a plucky, upbeat bridge into a darker, driving march that builds in intensity. The spare, sweet sounds of this song are tempered with an undercurrent of foreboding, a sense of holding back, like a skirmishing between the light and the dark. The entire melody seems to rise and swell, ebb and flow, like the water it opens and closes with.
2 • Dreams of Nectar ~ Track 9, City of Refuge ~
Listening to this song is like being put under a spell. Its dreamlike trilling and looping echo create an entrancing contrast to the simplicity of the vocals, so honest, so full.
3 • Nobody’s Fault But Mine ~ Track 10, Song of the Traveling Daughter ~
This original arrangement of a traditional blues song is blues as it is meant to sound: confessional and straightforward, mournful yet unashamed. It reminds me of one of my favorite blues songs In My Time of Dying, which I pretty much love no matter who covers it. Similarly, the newly released duo album between Washburn and Fleck features a soulful, mournful, moving, very spare, very beautiful rendition of the gospel classic And Am I Born to Die.
4 • Banjo-Pickin’ Girl ~ Track 9, Abigail Washburn & The Sparrow Quartet ~
This song is a fun, straight-forward upbeat take on a traditional old-time mountain song. It is the number-one-hands-down family favorite. My children know it by heart, love it, request it, dance to it. And they especially love (i.e. burst into giggles at the sound of) the vocal trill somewhere in the middle of the track.
5 • City of Refuge ~ Track 2, City of Refuge ~
A song of escape. The verses have a dark, earthiness that opens up into a sort of swirling reverie with the onset of the chorus that builds with each refrain. Mesmerizing. I have dreamed this song in my sleep.
6 • Sometimes ~ Track 1, Song of the Traveling Daughter ~
An upticking, traveling melody. A sort of globe-trotting adventure. Fun, almost poppy. Dare you not to tap your feet and listen to it again.
7 • Strange Things tied with Oh Me, Oh My ~ Tracks 3 & 6, Abigail Washburn & The Sparrow Quartet
These songs are not quite opposite in their sensibilities–but they are pretty close. They would be even further removed if not for the strain of the uncanny so persistent throughout both songs, in style and in story. Strange Things is a cover of an old gospel/blues song of the same title that was possibly written in response to the destruction left in the wake of a tornado, a natural disaster that struck Tupelo, Mississippi, in 1936. As opposed to the tender, cheeky Oh Me, Oh My, which is as airy and whimsical as Strange Things is burdened and frenetic.
8 • Burn Thru ~ Track 7, City of Refuge ~
Call me crazy, but every time I hear this song I half expect to hear Tom Petty join in on one of the verses. It could just be me, but this song sounds like it could almost be part of Highway Companion or Into the Great Wide Open. Which, to me, is not a bad thing.
* Bonus Track *
A Kazakh Melody ~ Track 8, Abigail Washburn & The Sparrow Quartet
I cannot get enough of this short and sweet entirely instrumental track. This earnest, delicate song adds in instruments one by one as the song progresses. About a minute in, this lilting instrumental conjures images of pastoral celebrations, something akin to what would be depicted in Braveheart. Which I know is Scottish, introducing a whole other culture into the mix, but I defy you not to almost hear bagpipes.
Lagniappe (a little something thrown in for good measure):
I know. As if there could be more.
This light-hearted promotional video records the responses of interviewees when asked what they think the “wu force” is. A bit long (like this post) but pretty funny, actually.
The linked video below depicts quite the cultural exchange of musical form. Here the Wu Force performs a sort of odd and funky avant-garde stomping romp of a song, with Fei singing in Chinese (and wearing a beard!), Washburn stomping, and Welch stomping and playing the trumpet. It is short but I declare it combines an eclectic menagerie of sounds, seeming to borrow not only only from China and Appalachia but from Ireland (with the riverdance-like accompaniment) and New Orleans (with the trumpet conveying both a Dixieland band sound and a bluesy jungle growl).
Video courtesy of YouTube ~ Humboldt Park/Milwaukee, Wis./13 Sept. 2014.
Chai, May-lee, and Winberg Chai. China A to Z. New York: Penguin, 2007.
Ferguson, Jon. “Washburn Blends American and Chinese Influences to Come Up with an Utterly Unique Sound.” Lancaster Online. 11 Sept. 2013. Web. 19 Feb. 2015.
Goodman, Frank. “A Conversation with Abigail Washburn.” Puremusic.com. Sept.
2005. Web. 19 Feb. 2015.
Jie, Jin. Chinese Music. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2010. ***
Kasten, Roy. “Abigail Washburn on Earl Scruggs and China.” Carolina Performing Arts. 11 Apr. 2011. Web. 19 Feb. 2015. *
Slagg, Steve. “Abigail Washburn: City of Refuge.” PopMatters.com. 27 Feb. 2011. Web. 19 Feb. 2015.
TED Radio Hour. “What Do China And The Banjo Have In Common?” NPR. 25 May 2012. Web. 19 Feb. 2015.
Wynn, Neil A., ed. Cross the Water Blues: African American Music in Europe. UP of Mississippi, 2007.
from Encyclopedia of Southern Culture. Eds. Charles Reagan Wilson & William Ferris. Chapel Hill: U of NCP, 1989.
Malone, Bill. “Music.” 985-992.
Rosenberg, Neil. “Bluegrass.” 993-994.
Winans, Robert B. “Banjo.” 1042-1043. **
graphics copyright 2015 hilary hall album cover photographs courtesy abigailwashburn.com