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Singing songs to connect America and China

By Abigail Washburn, Special to CNN
April 30, 2012 -- Updated 1615 GMT (0015 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Abigail Washburn: I wanted to be study law and help improve U.S.-China relations
  • Washburn: One night I heard Doc Watson sing and my life changed
  • She says that she got a banjo and started learning music and singing Chinese songs
  • Washburn: Music is a powerful way to connect people and cultures

Editor's note: Abigail Washburn is a singer, songwriter, clawhammer banjo player and recording artist who performs in English and Chinese. She spoke at the TED2012 conference in March. TED is a nonprofit dedicated to "Ideas worth spreading," which it makes available through talks posted on its website.

(CNN) -- If you had caught me straight out of college at age 22 in the halls of the Vermont State House where I was a lobbyist-in-training and asked me what I was gonna do with my life, I would have told you that I had just passed the HSK, otherwise known as the Chinese equivalency exam, and was planning to study law at Beijing University with the intention to improve U.S.-China relations through top-down policy changes and judicial system reforms. I had it all figured out.

Little did I know how much my life would change when one night I heard Doc Watson singing "Shady Grove" from a record player in the corner of a room at a party: "Shady Grove my little love, Shady Grove my darlin', Shady Grove my little love, I'm-a-goin' back to Harlan."

The rippling trance of an old-time banjo groove, and Doc's soulful voice layered on top, the sound of merging immigrant cultures of old Ireland and Africa in Appalachia -- it was all so beautiful.

Building U.S.-China relations by banjo

And, after having been obsessed with the mammoth history and richness of Chinese culture for years, I was relieved to find something so truly beautiful that is so truly American. I knew I had to get a banjo and bring it with me to China.

TED.com: Eddi Reader sings "Kiteflyer's Hill"

Before leaving for law school in China I jumped in my little red truck, threw my newly bought old-time banjo in the back, and went on a road trip through Appalachia to learn some old-time American music. I ended up in Louisville, Kentucky, at the International Bluegrass Music Association convention. And here's where the story gets nutty: I met two girls in a hallway, I nervously played a couple of old-time songs with them and a record executive walked up and invited me to come to Nashville to make a record!

Fast-forward a year, I delayed going to law school in Beijing, and instead lived in Nashville and learned to write songs. My first song came out in English, titled "Rockabye Dixie," and my second song in Chinese, "Song of the Traveling Daughter":

门 外有个世界 (Men wai you ge shijie)

心中有个声音 (Xin zhong you ge shengyin)

四方等你来呀 (Si fang deng ni lai ya)

游女游女 (You nu you nu)

Translation:

"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"

It's been eight years since that miraculous night in Kentucky. I have performed in thousands of shows, including tours in China and collaborations with all kinds of inspirational musicians and artists.

TED.com: Elizabeth Gilbert on nurturing creativity

Music is a powerful way to connect cultures. I see it when I'm on a stage at a bluegrass festival in Virginia. When I look out at the sea of people in lawn chairs and bust into a song in Chinese, everybody's eyes pop wide open and they nudge their neighbor: "Is that girl singing in Chinese?" After a show, people would come up to me; everyone seems to have a story about their connection to China. And I see the power of music when I'm on stage in China: I start a Chinese song and the audience roars with delight that the blond, curly-haired girl with the banjo can sing their music.

More importantly, I see how music directly connects people's hearts. Like the time a little Chinese girl came up to me after I performed at a relocation school in Sichuan's earthquake disaster zone and asked: "Big Sister Wang, can I sing you a song that my mom sang before she was swallowed in the earthquake...?" She sat on my lap and I could feel the warmth of her body. She sang me the song, and tears started rolling down her cheeks and tears started rolling down mine. The light shining from her eyes felt like a place I could stay forever.

TED.com: Yang Lan: The generation that's remaking China

In that moment, we weren't our Chinese or our American selves. We were mortal souls sitting together in that light that keeps us here. I long to dwell in that light ... with you and everybody... and I know U.S.-China relations doesn't need another lawyer.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Abigail Washburn.

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