Singer-songwriter Abigail Washburn is a study in paradox. While living in the culture-rich region around Chung Du near the Himalayan mountains, she started contemplating Meng Jiao’s ancient Chinese poem "Song of the Traveling Son," which tracks one young man’s journey over the course of the seasons. More specifically, she began to wonder what the corollary would be – what a daughter’s song or poem would have to say. From those musings emerged her "Song of the Traveling Daughter," a plangent exchange between banjo and cello that became the title track of her subtly affecting album, released by Nettwerk last summer.
Strongly symbolic of Washburn’s travels over the past 10 years, the song is key to the personal evolution that ultimately inspired her to immerse herself in traditional American culture. Yet it’s sung in Mandarin.
Fittingly, Washburn has said that it’s about freedom and what a woman wants in life.
That academic studies of Chinese culture should prompt an American artist to seek out her own heritage is perhaps not as odd as it first seems. Overseas residencies have a funny way of reinforcing national identity, plus celebrations of family and community values are at the heart of the oldest traditions in both cultures. And the way Washburn incorporates old-time instrumentation and tunings into her songs, the banjo imparts an Asian flavor even to those songs sung in English – not too surprising, given that she was inspired to pick up the instrument by her sojourn in China. While there she was driven to learn more about her individual identity, and, as she writes in her liner notes, she wanted to "delve deeper into the roots of things American." Old Doc Watson recordings further fueled her interest in the banjo as well as the old-time repertoire.
Yet Washburn, who’s also one-fifth of female old-time quintet Uncle Earl, didn’t consider herself a musician at the time. She was a full-fledged child of the suburbs (in Illinois, Maryland and Minnesota) who had sung in an a cappella vocal ensemble in college, but had never entertained dreams of
a music career. It was her burgeoning desire for self-expression that guided her to the banjo and songwriting. Critics and audiences on both continents have responded warmly to the singular path she’s traveled since. Expect her to bring a selection of banjos in different tunings to her concert on Sunday – and maybe a Chinese poem or two.