With a banjo on her knee, Abigail Washburn has long been busting up conceptions of folk music. The thirty-eight-year-old songwriter and picker draws inspiration from the sounds of the South and Appalachia, but she also links them with unlikely inspirations from China. Nearly two decades ago, Washburn was studying law in China when she realized she wanted to commit to music, instead. She continued to explore Eastern ideas and lessons, though, incorporating them into records that find common ground between disconnected traditions.
Washburn has visited Chapel Hill numerous times with The Sparrow Quartet, The Wu-Force, and as a duo with her husband, Béla Fleck. She recently earned a coveted fellowship with UNC's Southern Folklife Collection. She will spend the week before a Sunday night performance digging through its archives for new-to-her material to ponder as she spends this year focused on writing.
From a grassy spot on campus on a pleasant early spring day, Washburn discussed her Southern Folklife fellowship and the international fellowship she's found through music rooted in different continents.
INDY: What did your pitch to the Southern Folklife Collection entail?
ABIGAIL WASHBURN: It's a creative year of writing for me, and being able to hear these old recordings and see the things they have would certainly lead to more material that I'd perform onstage.
Mike Seeger took a lot of notes around each field recording he had. I wouldn't be able to access those unless I was here. I might hear that field recording out in the world somewhere, but I wouldn't know where Mike got it. There are stories around the music that can be mined in the archive that I wouldn't have known otherwise. And stories around songs are an important part of what I do and an important part of my performance. I've always been really attracted to academic archiving. That often is the way that we have recall of all this material.
I had a son almost three years ago now. And since then, it's been really rare that I listen to the old recordings that I used to listen to all the time for inspiration, partly because I don't make time for it. I'd rather be with my son when I'm not onstage. The stuff we want to listen to together isn't necessarily the old scratchy stuff. My time by myself really listening to this stuff and thinking about how it fits with who I am as an artist and how I want to carry on the oral folk tradition is a really important time for me. I haven't put that time aside for a long time, and now I am.
You mentioned Mike Seeger as one area of exploration. With an archive as vast as the Southern Folklife Collection, how did you pick a direction?
Well, I'm not very sure yet. There's a few things I'm coming in looking for. I love African-American gospel music, so I'm definitely going to look into that heavily.
I had a wonderful conversation today with [SFC curator] Steve Weiss and Phil Vandermeer, the head of the musicology library. I've got one very specific query, and they're going to help me figure it out. I would love to know what the Chinese rail workers in California in the 1800s sang while they worked. What did they sing while they were building the railroad? That is pre-recordings, so we have to do a real academic search and try to find references to songs they might have sung. How long did those people live? Are there oral histories of what their experience working on the railroad was like out west? That's a piece of what I'm looking for, too.
What about Mike Seeger's work attracted you?
It's the personal friendship. He took an interest in me when I started playing music. The whole idea of archiving and doing field recordings is a really interesting one about identity and culture, and an awareness that culture is something special. Recording it is helpful to the preservation of culture.
I fell in love with China, so I had this whole sense of identity and being an insider or an outsider and wanting to learn. I had a similar experience with being an American who's not from the Southeast, not from Appalachia, that feels so at home in this music. People hear you sing and play, and, in general, these people have been incredibly warm and inviting to me in the scene of Appalachian music.
But with China, it's a much, much larger hurdle, and I think a lot about that sense of identity as an outsider in China. In America, we say you can become an American no matter who you are. In China, you'll never become Chinese. I go to China, and I am always going to be a foreigner, even if I'd spent my whole life there and were a perfect speaker of Chinese. It's a heavily guarded, monolithic cultural machine. As a result, I've chosen to try to make it mine as an artist, to become Chinese in ways that fit within my artistic schema as a thinker and as a human. Whenever I feel like I'm an outsider, I just try to pull it inside and make it a part of me.
What's the biggest lesson you've learned with that experience?
It's brought up so many questions. In America, we value the individual, and in China, they value the place of the person within the community, not the individual. I feel like the overall mental health in both of our cultures could really benefit so much from taking a dose of medicine from the other.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Lengths of Strings"