Abigail Washburn: Building US-China relations … by banjo

If you had caught me straight out of college in the halls of the Vermont State House where I was.


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. (Laughter) 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. (Music) [Chinese] Outside your door the world is waiting. Inside your heart a voice is calling. The four corners of the world are watching, so travel daughter, travel. Go get it, girl. (Applause) 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. Thank you. (Applause)

100 thoughts on “Abigail Washburn: Building US-China relations … by banjo”

  1. So much hate for this! Why? I think it's one for the archives. On the same shelf as the Jill Bolte Taylor talk. Or close to it anyway.

  2. That was so good!! Really a very interesting way of bringing it together, and the ending was so powerful. A good TED Talk.

  3. I'm sure playing a banjo will influence 1.3 billion Chinese people to "play along" with USA's global gangster policies.

  4. Has any one ever noticed that allot of people who call themselves 'rationalists' are really just very conservative squares?

  5. I grew up in a communist country where the government (aka small group of elite) controls everything. I now live in a free country where the 1% (aka small group of elite) manages and manipulates all aspects of life. BTW, Abigail, a banjo may help you and that little girl feel better for a moment but it won't help building better US-China relation. Keep up the good work though.

  6. Seen her shows twice before,..love the fusion! Dunno why people wanna bring her message down,..girl jus doin her thing,..an its a good thing,ain't it?

  7. TED should be technology EDUCATION design, because people ought to consider those to be a source of entertainment.

  8. This is Earth. It's a planet. This is a global political environment. You are not your country. You are a human being. "Politics" is about people. Okay? Are you following me? A climate of misunderstanding, a climate of fear, a climate of misconception and false perception, a climate of physical and emotional distance- these will not foster better human relations. This is about BEING HUMAN and sharing that experience in a meaningful, compassionate way through our shared language- through music.

  9. This is Steve Martin's idea. Decades ago he imagined Nixon getting off of Airforce One with a banjo in hand to spread world peace.

  10. I heard her first on Prairie Home Companion, thought she was great, then saw her in concert!
    Then I recently heard about ZeFrank's return to YouTube, and found my way to this channel…
    Small world.
    Abigail IS awesome!

  11. She never said improving our cultural relations would make our corporate U.S. government stop being horrendous and idiotic, but it can't hurt.

  12. Thank you Abigail… what a wonderful personal story of discovery. I do believe music is a universal language.

  13. The U.S.A. does not play "gangster policy". We know Chinese very well, and know that they do not tolerate Westerners, but play it their "Bruce Lee" go-alone-way. We do not accept the accusations of being "arrogant" and also not "racists". But if there is no benefits to the West, the West is better-off be careful and not allow Chinese that they continue their non-friendly politics, despite different cultures.

  14. Well I don't think that's the point of this talk. I don't think a community of cross cultural musicians is likely to be a vehicle for the U.S. to impose it's political ideology on China.

  15. This lady seems so in love with herself. It's obnoxious.

    "Look at that lady with the hair, singing in Chinese." Ugh, I get it. You're unique. Can we talk about something else please?

  16. Well obviously. We're not even culturally unified in this country even though we like to pretend we are (and not that we should be either). Not to mention traditional community structure is all but dead and the U.S. is the closest you can get to a "spiritual wasteland", for lack of a better term (I don't actually have any supernatural belief).

    Still, she wasn't saying the GOVERNMENT should invest it's effort into musical relations; This has nothing to do with policy. Geez.

  17. Not to defend the speaker (because I don't care if you think she's obnoxious) but I'm guessing you've never been to a culture which isn't accustomed to your race? Her words are something any westerner could hear a south-east asian say.

  18. not more in love with herself as you are in love with yourself for posting such a clever comment. also, to reiterate, that hair is probably the cause of a lot of staring in china. having been to china with a friends daughter who has hair like that, youd a thought that little girl was a celebrity.

    her words come from experience, not a degree earned on youtube comment boards.

  19. no, not in other words. im sure you have some experience in dialogue, its important to read everything, not the first few words. i just want to point out that a person relating expereinces they have, like going to china and having strangers come up to you to touch your hair, causes one to speak in certain ways, as a person with depth would do. saying, "look at that lady with the hair" wasnt her showing how awesome her hair is, but relating an experience.

  20. I get it. This isn't exactly a deep conversation. But the way she talks, her body language, random obnoxious singing and eccentricity all combine to annoy the shit out of me. In the end I can't help but think that she's up there to show everyone how interesting and unique she is first, and to talk about US/China relations second.

    This is just my opinion. Relax.

  21. Stunning! Music, which is mathematics-based and thus science-based, i.e. acoustics, is the universal language of all of Humanity. American Abigail "Big Sister Wong" Washburn reaches the Chinese with her American folk music just as the Chinese band "Twelve Girls Band" reaches us, (Americans and other nationalities of people), with their "Chinese-flavored" versions on some of our Western songs/music like: Coldplay's "Clocks", Enya's "Only Time", & van Beethoven's "Symphony No. 5 in C Minor".

  22. I've watched this 5 times and still tear up EVERY TIME! Pure radiance. I want to dwell in that light with everyone, too.

  23. The effort to connect all the countries together into one human family is the very goal of the Venus project. So many people want to believe that world peace is just a fantasy and is simply utopian. This video show us what world peace really means and that it can really happen as long as we human beings allow it to happen. Please visit thevenusproject[dot]com or search "resource-based economy" or "venus project" on youtube to learn more.

  24. Stick to the banjo, lady. I very much enjoy exotic Asian music, but you're pretty lousy at incorporating it into your sound.

  25. Such an amazing woman and inspirational story! I was once a teacher in China for a year, so I can appreciate how much of a positive impact she must be having between our two countries. Well done, Abigail. Fei cheng hao! Ni shi li hai!

  26. It seems that she has found her place and that music has really been an instrument for her. She seems to have bridged the gap with her music and the language. I applaud her.

  27. Her songs are prophetic, her wisdom ageless and her heart huge – for all mankind. We need more folks like Abigail – and The Grand Slambovians! If we listen more to folks like them and love more, we'll achieve peace on Earth. She's beautiful inside and out and I applaud her efforts! You go girl!

  28. thank god it worked out this way. You succeeded to make me laugh, cry, sing, rethink tonight at your concert in Budapest. I adored you and Bela, such a charismatic duo.

  29. Abigail, we loved having you in Chattanooga with Bela. Thank you for your Washington Phillips song, What are they doing right now… will try that on mandolin. We're tellin our friends who have adopted from China about you. Play on. Come back.

  30. Wow! Just saw her with husband Bela Fleck in Providence last night. What a very cool, amazingly talented beautiful woman she is! Good for her! Inspiring message!

  31. Fast forward a few years: Abigail Washburn and her husband, Béla Fleck on stage accepting their Grammy for 2016 Best Folk Album of the Year!

  32. organized crime has no piety. sociopathic individuals found in positions of military & social power also have no sentimentality..for they believe in their own self-importance and immortality..so sad..

  33. I love this—I’m verklempt. YouTube, based on liking a Ted talk , please don’t deluge me with Gary Vaynerchuk videos. Let me enjoy this moment.

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