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If you had caught me straight out of college in the halls of the Vermont State House where I was a lobbyist in training and asked me what I was going to do with my life, I would have told you that I'd just passed the Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi, the Chinese equivalency exam, and I was going to go study law in Beijing, and I was going to improve U.S.-China relations through top-down policy changes and judicial system reforms. (Laughter) (Applause) I had a plan, and I never ever thought it would have anything to do with the banjo.
Little did I know what a huge impact it would have on me one night when I was at a party and I heard a sound coming out of a record player in the corner of a room. And it was Doc Watson singing and playing "Shady Grove." ♫ Shady Grove, my little love ♫ ♫ Shady Grove, my darlin' ♫ ♫ Shady Grove, my little love ♫ ♫ Going back to Harlan ♫ That sound was just so beautiful, the sound of Doc's voice and the rippling groove of the banjo. And after being totally and completely obsessed with the mammoth richness and history of Chinese culture, it was like this total relief to hear something so truly American and so truly awesome. I knew I had to take a banjo with me to China.
So before going to law school in China I bought a banjo, I threw it in my little red truck and I traveled down through Appalachia and I learned a bunch of old American songs, and I ended up in Kentucky at the International Bluegrass Music Association Convention. And I was sitting in a hallway one night and a couple girls came up to me. And they said, "Hey, do you want to jam?" And I was like, "Sure." So I picked up my banjo and I nervously played four songs that I actually knew with them. And a record executive walked up to me and invited me to Nashville, Tennessee to make a record.
It's been eight years, and I can tell you that I didn't go to China to become a lawyer. In fact, I went to Nashville. And after a few months I was writing songs. And the first song I wrote was in English, and the second one was in Chinese.
It's really been eight years since that fated night in Kentucky. And I've played thousands of shows. And I've collaborated with so many incredible, inspirational musicians around the world. And I see the power of music. I see the power of music to connect cultures. I see it when I stand on a stage in a bluegrass festival in east Virginia and I look out at the sea of lawn chairs and I bust out into a song in Chinese. [Chinese] And everybody's eyes just pop wide open like it's going to fall out of their heads. And they're like, "What's that girl doing?" And then they come up to me after the show and they all have a story. They all come up and they're like, "You know, my aunt's sister's babysitter's dog's chicken went to China and adopted a girl." And I tell you what, it like everybody's got a story. It's just incredible. And then I go to China and I stand on a stage at a university and I bust out into a song in Chinese and everybody sings along and they roar with delight at this girl with the hair and the instrument, and she's singing their music.
And I see, even more importantly, the power of music to connect hearts. Like the time I was in Sichuan Province and I was singing for kids in relocation schools in the earthquake disaster zone. And this little girl comes up to me. [Chinese] "Big sister Wong," Washburn, Wong, same difference. "Big sister Wong, can I sing you a song that my mom sang for me before she was swallowed in the earthquake?" And I sat down, she sat on my lap. She started singing her song. And the warmth of her body and the tears rolling down her rosy cheeks, and I started to cry. And the light that shone off of her eyes was a place I could have stayed forever.
And in that moment, we weren't our American selves, we weren't our Chinese selves, we were just mortals sitting together in that light that keeps us here. I want to dwell in that light with you and with everyone. And I know U.S.-China relations doesn't need another lawyer.
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TED Fellow Abigail Washburn wanted to be a lawyer improving US-China relations -- until she picked up a banjo. 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.
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. Full bio »