Building US-China Relations by Banjo

Back in February, TED featured a talk by Abigail Washburn, a sinophile and musician (in that successive order) with a unique method for fostering healthy international relations. In the TED Talk, Washburn tells the story of how Doc Watson’s rendition of an American folk song diverted a longtime academic obsession with Chinese culture and policy towards a career as a Bluegrass musician, and how she combines her art and passion to promote cultural understanding:


Abigail Washburn, now the wife of banjo virtuoso and eclectic musical fusionist Béla Fleck, has toured extensively and recorded prolifically as a solo artist and with her two bands. In late 2011, Washburn and her band The Village toured the Silk Road from Inner Mongolia to Xinjiang. Below is a clip from their time in Yinchuan, Ningxia province. Click through for more documentation of the tour.


The theme of NPR’s TED Radio Hour today was inspiration and creativity, and they invited the “Chinese-speaking, banjo-picking girl” to talk about her experiences. In the interview, she tells more of her story, sings a few songs, explains how Chinese culture influences her music, and breaks down some of her Chinese lyrics. Transcribed from the NPR interview:

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) [门外有个世界,心中有个声音,四方等你来啊,游女,游女]

And that means [门外有个世界], outside your door the world is waiting. [心中有个声音], inside your heart a voice is calling. [四方等你来啊], the four corners of the world are waiting. [游女,游女], so go get it, girl. Travel, daughter, travel.

So, for me, my creative inspiration was also in Chinese.

For a full set of Abigail Washburn’s music and a Chinese language synopsis of the artist, see Abigail Washburn: 歌唱在纳什维尔和北京之间 [Singing Between Nashville and Beijing] from

Also see prior CDT coverage of the bilingual bluegrass musician.


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