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Abigail Washburn Mixes Cultures with Old Time Appalachian Sound


Abigail Washburn never set out to be a singer, or a songwriter, let alone an old-time banjo picker who sings in Mandarin Chinese. But, that's exactly what's she's doing on the new CD, "Songs of the Traveling Daughter."

Abigail Washburn sings and plays what's often called "old-time Appalachian mountain music" on her banjo. It's not often that you hear young women playing this traditional style of song, and it's not one that Abby heard a lot of while growing up. So how did she discover the "old-timey" sound?"

"I actually came to this music by reverse osmosis, I guess you could say," she said. "I went over to China and studied the Chinese language and culture, and became totally infatuated with it. In the sense that I knew I would spend the rest of my life learning about China and Chinese culture after I did a trip there after my freshman year of college in 1996. It was upon returning to the States, probably after my second trip to China that I felt sort of cracked open a bit, like I was ready to receive more about American culture than I ever had been before. In fact, I would say that, subconsciously, I came back searching for things that made America make sense to me. Because here I was, studying this other culture, spending day-in and day-out trying to learn another language and understand the richness of another culture, I thought to myself 'what does my native land hold for me?'"

So Abby began exploring her own culture, and learning more about traditional American music. Soon she began playing "old-time" music, and started writing her own songs, several of which can be found on Song of the Traveling Daughter.

Cellist Ben Sollee accompanied Abby on her visit to Voice of America. The banjo-cello combination brings a dark feel to this song, "Eve Stole the Apple," an Abigail Washburn original that sounds like it could have been written 100 years ago.

One of Abigail Washburn's songs was inspired by an experience she had while teaching English as a second language. At the time, she was living in Vermont. Her students were men working at a local Chinese restaurant. They had come to the United States thinking they would eventually earn enough money so their families could join them in America. "The Lost Lamb" was inspired by a student who had been invited to Abby's home for what she had hoped would be a pleasant dinner.

"He showed up at the door and he just looked so sad," she said. "I asked him what was going on. He looked at me and he handed me a letter and he said 'read this.' I opened it up and it was from his wife, and it said, 'You've been gone for four years now, and I don't think I'll ever come there. And I fear that you will never return home. I think your child and I need to start a new life without you.' That was that. He broke down crying. This song is about feeling lost. Not knowing where you are, and what's going to guide you out. When I say [a Chinese phrase]... that's pleading 'I am a lost lamb, who is going to save me from this.' It's sort of like a prayer, too."

In November 2005, Abigail Washburn had a chance to mix her love of American roots music and China by arranging a short tour of Beijing and Shanghai. This was her second tour of China in as many years, and she hopes to return for many more.

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