Song of the Traveling Clawhammer Banjo Player

by Roger Holland

Abigail Washburn reflects on the two worlds that inform her art.

Twenty-seven-year-old Abigail Washburn is something of a contemporary troubadour, a musical traveler on a fascinating voyage of self-discovery. Her journeys have taken her to both places and times where she’s been able to find the insights and inspirations to ground herself in this most confusing of worlds and to produce one of the more compelling debut albums of recent years: Song of the Traveling Daughter. It seemed fitting somehow that after a couple of false starts, I finally caught up with Washburn in the latter stages of a trip from Los Angeles to her home in Nashville. Typically, she was taking a road less traveled by.

“I’m on my way back from a visit with my record and management company in LA. And due to some funny routing on a tour with my other band, Uncle Earl, I had to leave my van in Chicago to be fixed. So I flew out to LA from Chicago, then flew back to Chicago, hopped back in the van and I’m in the middle of driving back to Nashville right now. I’m actually trying to rush back to Nashville because I’m supposed to be filling in for another banjo player tonight at a show in town.”

Don’t worry; this was no reckless pedal-to-the-metal, cellphone-to-the-ear, one-hand-on-the-wheel, 70-mph interview. Washburn had pulled over in anticipation of my 2:00 pm call, and she was safely ensconced in the lobby of a hotel some 70 miles north of Louisville. By my reckoning, after a four-hour flight from LA, she was now about 300 miles from Chicago’s O’Hare airport with another 250 miles (and a live stand-in performance) to go before she could sleep.

Abigail Washburn’s “other band”, Uncle Earl has just released a new CD, Waits for Night on Rounder Records. A project conceived to capture the distinct female voices in American Roots music, Uncle Earl was founded in Michigan in 2000 and today, after a multiplicity of member changes, features five women from as far afield as New Mexico, North Carolina, the District of Columbia, Colorado and Tennessee. All of which seems pretty much par for the course for Ms. Washburn?

“Yes. I was born in Evanston, Illinois. I spent my elementary and part of my junior high school years in a DC suburb. And then I spent my high school years in Minnesota. And then I spent my college years in Colorado. And then I spent sometime living in China. And then I spent three years in Vermont before moving down to Nashville.”

So she likes to get around?

“I do. I do get around.” Laugher echoes down the phone line. Then there’s a pause. And then a deadpan clarification: “Geographically, that is.”

Her travels in China have been particularly important to Abigail Washburn.

“The first time I went to China was to study the language. It was a profound experience. I was 18 and the experience of going to a country with such a different culture and seemingly such a different psychology was very difficult for me. I had a lot of trouble working out how to connect with Chinese people, and I went away feeling slightly inept and frustrated.

“I actually thought I might not go back. I thought about it good and hard, but I did go back, and my next time in China I was lucky enough to run into a couple of really incredible Chinese people who mentored me and taught me and brought me into their world so that I could see it better and become a part of it. That made all the difference.

“I’ve been in love with China ever since, and I suppose became wedded to it in a sense because my hope is that I can spend the rest of my life doing work related to a cultural connecting and understanding between America and China. It feels right.”

Washburn is big on having things feel right, and says her time in China helped her to a better understanding of her own homeland and of her self.

“There are a few things that have had a big impact on my own sense of how I want to live my life. One is how I relate to my family. Chinese culture has a lot to say about familial relationships and filial piety, and what I learnt there was inspiring.

“In some ways, in the US we don’t know how to be. I think in a lot of ways America is about liberation, and about change and progressive human relations. And because of that I feel like that we’re confused about who we’re supposed to be and what it is that’s supposed to satisfy us and make us feel fulfilled. And a lot of answers to that came—for me—from seeing how children interacted with their parents in China

“I grew up in a cultural environment where I was confused about my role as a kid, as a sister, as a daughter. Certainly, I wondered—I’m not married yet; I hope someday—what it would mean to be a wife. And I’m not saying I want to borrow all those concepts from Chinese culture, there’s a lot about it that I find slightly oppressive and I think there’s a lot of two-way learning that could happen about those different aspects of our two cultures, but it certainly helped me to think about defining my role and settling into some ideas of how I want to relate. And that felt good. It felt really good.

“I came back from China with this sense of my duty to my family and my community. And it actually brought peace to my life to feel that way.”

Now that she is immersed in a musical career that is firmly based in the United States, it seems clear that Washburn still yearns for China.

“I had a goal. I wanted my career to have something to do with the area of Sino-American relations. I did have a job for a while with a consulting company when I was living in Beijing. And in Vermont, I was a state-level lobbyist there so I started getting very familiar with politics and governmental relations and things like that. So I was still thinking that I would go in that direction. I really liked the idea of understanding more about international law ... I like new frontiers, you’ll see ... and I wanted to be involved in the evolving international legal system.

“But, and I feel compelled to say this for some reason, I realized that although I was learning the Chinese language and I was learning how to use it, something was missing. I really wanted to have something to say. Something worth saying. Just learning a language is awesome. It’s an amazing process that changes me as I learn it. But I really wanted to offer something back that made the language of great use to me and authentic to who I am. And honestly, I think it was within a few weeks of realizing this that I started getting opportunities to become a singer and a performer and to actually do stuff in Chinese.

“So I followed that road, because it seemed like a sign.”

Abigail Washburn believes in signs.

“I really do. But they have to be obvious though! And I’ve made that request clear.”

Washburn’s traveling habits are not limited to geography. She’s also tried her hand in a number of different musical disciplines.

“I sang in a reggae band. And then there was a soul band where I sang back-up vocals and some lead. And I was also in a women’s a capella group. And I was in the gospel choir at school. Actually, I’ve always been in choirs. Or some kind of group. Just because I love singing so much. But I truthfully never thought of it as a career.”

Now she has a career in music, I’m unsure whether Washburn has finally settled down into a home of her own. Musically that is.

“Well, it’s ever evolving ... but it fits me right now. It’s my natural form of expression for who I am right now.”

Asked—somewhat unfairly—to describe her own music in just one word, the best Washburn can do is “Alternative folk. But that’s two words.” So we agree to hyphenate, and then she ponders the appropriateness of the label.

“For one word, one hyphenated word, I think alternative-folk is the best I can do. My style is very much based in the old-time American music, like the Appalachian traditions and the blues. A love of the music from the ‘20s and ‘30s inspired a lot of the music on the record. But so did a lot of my experience living in China and studying the culture and the language so maybe some people will see it as interesting hybrid.

“I’m not quite sure [what] world music is or how I would fit into it, so I don’t know if that’s a good descriptor, but I would certainly like to be seen as an artist or have a career where I’m involved in an international community of musicians.”

When I mentioned that I could certainly see Washburn involved in something like the WOMAD festival, she confessed ignorance of the WOMAD phenomenon so I explained a little about the now truly international World Of Music And Dance organization founded by Peter Gabriel in the early ‘80s.

“How cool! That’s exactly the sort thing that I would like to be participating in. I would really like to be part of the larger musical dialogue that’s going on between musicians who do consider themselves international and are interested in collaborating with people around the world. I think that’s a really exciting new frontier and I’d like to be a part of that.”

The old-time American music that inspires Washburn has its roots in Irish, English, Scottish, and African folk music, and was originally closely associated with the Appalachian Mountains. The label itself dates back to 1923 when the Okeh record label first coined the term to describe Fiddlin’ John Carson’s recordings of traditional American country music. This Appalachian folk music became a major influence on styles like country and bluegrass and, while the definitions are blurred today, it’s quite clear, for example, that while bluegrass music developed out of old-time there is now a definite distinction between the two. Except when there isn’t.

For example, Abigail Washburn is not a bluegrass banjo player. She plays in the clawhammer style.

“Clawhammer is usually played—usually—on an open-backed banjo, which is also known as an old-time banjo. The truth is that in old-time music you can find people playing both open-backed banjos and (the other common modern day example of the instrument) banjos with resonators, but generally speaking I’d say that clawhammer technique is on an old-time banjo, by which I mean an open-backed banjo.

“The usual definition of clawhammer banjo is related to the number of upstroke and downstrokes with the thumb on the drum string so you end up with this syncopated, rhythmic effect with the drum string and the downbeats being played with the brush or being hit with the finger. So that’s essentially clawhammer.”

“And oft-times,” Washburn continues, “clawhammering includes the double thumb technique, or the drop thumb technique would probably be more accurate. Drop thumb is where you drop your thumb from the drum string. There are more and more melodic possibilities when you allow yourself to drop the thumb.

“The generally accepted theory is that the banjo came from Africa with the slaves. Probably from the Gambia or Mali. And then it got into the hands of all kinds of American immigrants living in Appalachia. So, generally speaking, clawhammer-style banjo was an amalgam of Scottish and Irish influences on an African instrument: the banjo.

“Clawhammer is pretty much the most widely used technique for playing old-time banjo nowadays. There are also some fingerpicking techniques that are pretty widely used, but they’re different. Clawhammer is significantly different from the three-finger style that you see in bluegrass, for example. So, in fact, clawhammer is a term that people generally use in differentiating this style from the bluegrass technique.”

Who’d've thought something as simple as the banjo could be so complicated? Or that a record made by a woman with a banjo could have offered so many intriguing moments?

From a rendition of “Nobody’s Fault But Mine”, that stays faithful to both Blind Willie Johnson’s original and Nina Simone’s outstanding take on the same song, to very English folk stylings of the a capella “Single Drop of Honey”, Song of the Traveling Daughter explores the roots of much of what is best in contemporary American music, and introduces enough invention and personality of its own to escape any accusations of nostalgia. This is very much a record for today. A bridge, perhaps, between yesterday and today, and between the East and West.

And then, of course, there are the signs to consider.

“‘Song of the Traveling Daughter’ is the first Chinese song I wrote. I was working at the time for a biotech company in Nashville, and I got a call completely out of the blue from this television company in New York who’d been passed a minidisk of me performing an old-time song that I’d translated into Chinese in Beijing. They were making a Chinese reality TV show for the Asian-American cable audience, and they wanted me to record some Chinese language music for the show. And I just thought: ‘Well, there’s a sign…’”

The TV show in question was called QuestUSA. Think Amazing Race with bigger teams. In the USA. In Chinese. Apparently the company is now making a follow-up show set in China to sell to a Chinese broadcaster. Washburn has no idea if the initial show was any good: “I don’t even have a TV.”

Anyway, “Song of the Traveling Daughter” was inspired by an eighth century Chinese poem called “Song of the Traveling Son”. But whereas the original explores the sorrow and dislocation felt by both a mother and son when the son has left home, Washburn’s song describes a mother encouraging her daughter to travel: “It’s about a sense of freedom and following your heart.”

The songs that seem to be Washburn’s strongest turn out also to be the most personal. “Halo”, for example, was written with her grandfather during his last months of life and sung at his graveside. While “Red and Blazing” is probably her most musically inventive and emotional moment. To these ears, its use of tonality, volume, and a near droning instrumentation is much more modern than an old-time music has any right to be.

“Well, I definitely don’t feel constrained by the music that I’m inspired by in the old-time tradition. It’s a great rich starting ground but my songs won’t always follow a traditional structure if I need to express something that falls outside that structure. I’ve been very fortunate to be working with empathic musicians who play from an emotional place and who were able to help me build the landscapes and frameworks I needed.

“I’m not a terribly prolific songwriter, but I write from an expressive and emotional place, and whatever hits me first I go with and then try to build from. With ‘Red and Blazing’, I had a night of free writing—which is something I really don’t do that often—and, honestly, all I did was write the words to that song in one continuous…” She pauses. “And I almost felt visited. Because it was very much about somebody very close to me who had died at a very young age, and I know that I had a lot of unresolved feelings about going through that experience and losing him, so that song lyrically came from that experience.

“I got the idea for the melody from an old song called “The Dying Soldier”. The version I know is from the ‘20s or ‘30s and it’s by Buell Kazee. I heard that and I was just transfixed. I listened over and over again trying to work out exactly how he was playing the banjo ... repeating a melody over just a basic fast drop thumb underneath a long held out note.

“It definitely felt like the song had points where I wanted to stop, almost like a moment of silence to pay respects to the phase that I went through lyrically. And then each time it felt like it had to build up more and more. And I guess that the process of dealing with this person’s death was a lot like that for me. It just takes time and it never quite resolves, and that’s one of things about the music of this song itself. You’re never quite sure what key it’s in, because after the first verse it’s continually going back and forth between two keys and it never really resolves until the very end. It’s supposed to be stuck in between two places and that’s reflected in the lyrics. I don’t want to go up, I don’t want to go down, I want the song to stay where it is right before it drops but then in the end there’s a letting go. If the sun doesn’t go down, it’ll never come up again.

The Buell Kazee song comes from the perspective of a dying soldier saying goodbye. Washburn again turns the idea around: “My song is about what it’s like to be living and to have to say goodbye to the dying.”

Another standout track is “Eve Stole the Apple”.

“That started from a repeated line from a very old recording of Vera Hall singing ‘Another Man Done Gone’. I was so struck by it, and I wanted to build a song around something like that, and the things that kept coming to me were like the vision of Eve stealing the apple. For me, the theme isn’t so much about oppression (‘Another Man Done Gone’ is a chain-gang song) as it is about wanting to challenge complacency.

“It’s a song that lets me sing the way I love to sing. I’ve been in a couple of African-American gospel choirs and it’s the most exciting and joyful form of music for me. Just being a part of that sound is totally incredible. And ‘Eve’ let me sing that way as if I was part of a really strong driven choir, but just one lone voice.”

“The Lost Lamb” is the second song on Song of the Traveling Daughter that Washburn wrote and sings in Chinese. A collaboration with a Chinese woman from Nashville, it was inspired by an experience Washburn had when working as an ESL teacher in Vermont.

“I was working with a bunch of Chinese guys who’d come over trying to raise money in crappy jobs for their families back home. They were the only Chinese people for miles, and I was their English teacher. They were all a little bit later in life and having trouble assimilating English, so I would use Chinese to try to help them learn English. Which seemed to work better, and helped me practice a bunch so it was a nice exchange.

“I ended up getting particularly close to one of the guys who needed special attention both in terms of his learning, and also because he was going through hardships. But I didn’t really learn too much about his life until he came over one night, and as soon as he walked through the door I knew something was wrong. He said, ‘Look at this letter’. His wife had written him a letter that said ,‘You’ve been in America for four years; I don’t think you’re ever coming back and I think your daughter and I need to leave you. It’s over.’

“It was one of the saddest things that had ever happened to anyone I ever knew. And so the song is an expression of being so far away from home and feeling like your sense of home is fading. It’s almost like a calling out to be saved.”

What about Washburn’s own sense of home? Does she feel more settled now, or is travel still in her blood?

“Gosh. It’s not that I don’t want to be rooted somewhere. It’s just that sometimes it feels like there’s a higher purpose that doesn’t allow me to stay in one place. I don’t know. Honestly. For a long time, I thought I would spend most of my twenties living in China and that’s ended up not being the case. For the most part, I’m in Nashville, Tennessee, but it feels like it’s meant to be, so it’s good.

“Let’s just say that I love Nashville and we’ll see what happens.”

What about travel as a metaphor? Is she always searching for new things to inspire and consume her?

“I don’t think so. For me, traveling—especially now, where I’m on the road constantly—is a real challenge. I’d like to feel I’m growing from a certain place, but the traveling forces me to feel like my orientation is largely out of myself and the community that I keep involved with—either over the phone or by running into it at music festivals and things like that. The funny thing about traveling a lot is that because it is in many ways ungrounding, it feels like my spirit is growing more and more.” She laughs. “I’m trying to say this in a nice way, but really I think I should follow something less material, or find home in a less material place.”

China, clearly, is very important to Abigail Washburn. Perhaps it appeals to her as that “less material place”. So how does she see her future? As an America-based artist, a Nashville-based artist who tours China? Or could she see herself relocating yet again and getting a big house with a banjo-shaped pool in the Beijing Hills?

“I played in China over a period of three or four weeks in the fall, and I’m trying to plan another tour there for November and December this year. I feel like even if I do choose a spot to call home—like Nashville—I think there would forever be a home that I would be wanting to return to somewhere in China. Probably Beijing. I love that city. So in a sense it would feel like two homes, but I wouldn’t want to feel like two different people.”

Frequently spiritual, committed to the concepts of family and community and service, seemingly torn between East and West, Abigail Washburn, I suspect, still has miles to go.

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