Several years ago I participated in an interesting musical cultural exchange. My wife and I went to a 4th of July picnic that marked the end of a martial arts conference and one of the traditions at this conference is that all of the people there are encouraged to share with the group some sort of talent or interest that they have. I think one of the main reasons for this is to show that everyone has something to offer and the thing they have to share is just as important as the thing anyone else has- everyone is the teacher and everyone is the student. It seems a great tool to build camaraderie and to bring the whole room together as a community. At this picnic, there was an old time fiddle player sitting in a corner of the room playing for the group and since I am a banjo player, I asked if I could join her. Despite the fact that I play bluegrass banjo and she played old time fiddle, we found common ground and happily played songs we knew in common. Much to our delight, one of the presenters at the conference, erhu virtuoso Yang Ying (Erhu is a Chinese instrument that seems to be a distant relative of the fiddle. It has two strings and is played with a bow, but unlike the fiddle, it is held in the players’ lap and played vertically.) who was attending the picnic approached us and asked if she could play also. So for what I assumed was the first time ever, old time fiddle, banjo and erhu found common ground and were able to play, create and share music that sounded both new and old at the same time.
The idea of finding common ground is a theme that is going to surface frequently in my list of highlights from the McConnell Library Appalachian Music Collection. We live in a great big world and thanks (?) to current technology, one can travel from one end of it to another either personally or virtually with relatively little time or effort. Cultural and musical influences are crisscrossing the globe constantly and common ground is being found every day in situations that would have been unthinkable even twenty years ago. So with the idea of common ground and cultural and musical influences crisscrossing the globe fresh in our minds, we come to the recording I would like to highlight from the McConnell Library Appalachian Music Collection……
Released in 2005, this 13 song debut album by old-time banjoist and singer Abigail Washburn sort of happened by accident. Abigail Washburn did not intend to record albums and tour the world with bands, she actually intended to be a lawyer in China and had already bought her plane ticket to go there to begin her studies. She was a musician though and in 2003 attended a music convention, (International Bluegrass Music Association) and was discovered by a Sugar Hill (Sugar Hill is a record label) talent scout there. Ms. Washburn and another musician named Megan Gregory were playing music together in a quiet corner and were approached by a record agent and asked if they wanted to go to Nashville to record a music demo. They did, but in the end, Ms. Gregory had other musical plans and decided not to pursue any projects with Washburn. One thing led to another and now we all know the name Abigail Washburn and associate it with music and not law. Also appearing on the album are: Jordan McConnell on guitar, whistle, and Uilleann pipe; Béla Fleck on steel guitar and banjo (Fleck also produced the album), Casey Driessen on fiddle, Ben Colee on cello, Tim Lauer on accordion and keyboards, Amanda Kowalski on bass and Ryan Hoyle on drums and percussion.
The first time I listened to this album, four songs immediately jumped out at me as early favorites- “Sometimes”, “Who’s Gonna Shoe”, “Nobody’s Fault But Mine” and “Backstep Cindy/Purple Bamboo”. The album opens with “Sometimes” which is a catchy song blending and alternating banjo and fiddle lines to support the melody. It’s a fun sound and it feels traditional despite the fact that it was written by Washburn. The use of clawhammer banjo, fiddle guitar and bass and the vocal style all sound very familiar and like home.
“Backstep Cindy/Purple Bamboo” is a medly that showcases some very nice banjo playing (Backstep Cindy) and then morphs into Purple Bamboo which is traditionally played on flute and…….ehru (I bet you were wondering why I brought up that ehru story!). The first time I heard this piece I was completely sold on this album. The mix of cultures and musical ideas really works in this piece. I am trying to find out if erhu was used in this recording or not because I know it is used on some of Washburn’s other recordings, but so far I haven’t found that out. I do know though that Ms. Washburn regularly plays with erhu (two-stringed fiddle), zhongruan (short-necked four-string lute), pipa (four-stringed lute) and dombra (a two-stringed lute) players in China. If I were to admit feeling a little disappointed that I was probably not the first western banjo player to play with an ehru, you might think a little less of me, so I won’t talk about that.
“Who’s Gonna Shoe” is a very pretty and sweet song and it makes me feel nostalgic and think of family. Sung in what amounts to a call-and-response type arrangement, I quickly felt almost involved in the storyline. I can picture a little girl at the feet of an older relative defending her vision of a future where she will always be surrounded by love and family: “Papa’s gonna shoe my pretty little feet/ Mama’s gonna glove my hand/ Sister’s gonna kiss my red ruby lips/ I don’t need no man.”
“Nobody’s Fault But Mine” is a wonderful rendition of the Blind Willie Johnson song of the same title that uses only banjo and voice (and it sounds nothing at all like the Led Zeppelin version!). The banjo playing is sparse and effective and seems a perfect accompaniment to the vocal, mostly mirroring the melody line and nothing more. In various interviews, Washburn talks about how she feels the banjo should support the vocal and her playing style on each song depends on the vocal style, that is very well illustrated here and I think this is a perfect example of the meaning of “less is more”. The haunting vocal matched with the almost haunting banjo truly makes this song feel “real”.
There are other songs of note as well, including “The Lost Lamb” and “Song of the Traveling Daughter” both of which are sung in Mandarin. In an interview with Banjo Newsletter (August 2008) Ms. Washburn said that Lost Lamb was inspired by a man she was teaching banjo to who had just gotten a letter from his wife who had decided to start a life without him. There is actually only voice and cello on this song which seems a little odd and misplaced with respect to the rest of the album. Perhaps lyrically this song is on common ground with so many traditional Appalachian songs of our own that tell tales of the broken hearted and dearly departed- the *sound* of the vocal certainly evokes a feeling of sorrow and even though I don’t understand the words, I do understand the sentiment. Song of the Traveling Daughter however seems another case of finding “common ground”, this time in a more traditional and happy way. The instrumentation is more in line with the rest of the album and is really a fun listen.
Is Song of the Traveling Daughter truly old-time music? Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t, it does use cello quite a bit (not to mention maybe the erhu!) and percussion and they’re not really old time instruments, but it is part of the musical world and common ground needed to be found to make it work. To my ears, the sound and sentiment of the music are Appalachian, so I am counting it as such. The Appalachian region is filled with immigrants and influences from other countries and I think we take the Irish or Scottish influences for granted in the music by now, who knows, at one time maybe hearing their influences in the music seemed odd. Adding Chinese sounds into Appalachian music seems OK – in the end, we’re all here together, and common ground sounds pretty good to me.