Song of the Traveling Daughter
omething innately pleases me about a roots musician working in both American and Chinese folk traditions. On the surface, it might smack of cultural co-optation, but Abigail Washburn seems genuinely immersed in the life of the foreign country she's spent so much time in. Song of the Traveling Daughter, her debut full-length (and not the EP of the same title) merges her love and knowledge of Chinese with her quickly-acquired old-time banjo skills.
Washburn based the title track on an old poem called "Song of the Traveling Son," and she wrote and performs the track in Mandarin. Not surprisingly, I've got no idea what the song's about, but I do know it sounds good. The piece initially carries an Oriental feel, but the fiddle playing bends it back toward the distinct Appalachian source of much of Washburn's recordings.
Although the singing limits the song's accessibility to Western listeners, "Traveling Daughter" serves as a quick study of Washburn's syncretic-leaning mind. It also reveals that while Eastern and Western culture are frequently held up as opposites, there is common ground in folk music—stories have common ground, and basic (though not technically-lacking) music transfers well as media. Much of the dialogue may be between internal components, but Washburn's conversationalists don't have trouble speaking with each other.
Less interesting from a cultural perspective, but every bit as enjoyable is Washburn's more straightforward American mountain music (which she wrote or co-wrote). The album opens with a strong trio. "Sometimes" builds on Washburn's competent banjo playing to become an anthemic number that resonates more decisively than its lyrics would leave you to believe. "Rockabye Dixie" works on an even more stripped-down instrumentation, adding just occasional chamber strings to fill out the lullaby. The next number, "Coffee's Cold," relies on a bouncy ragtime groove with just a bit of swing.
One of the album's highlights requires no instrumentation at all. Washburn—who sang in her college a cappella group well before she thought of a music career—handles several vocal duties on "Single Drop of Honey." In the best of roots music tradition, she merges the secular with the religious, alluding to the Bible even as she appeals to a distant lover. As the song progresses, though, she mystifies that man she addresses, as he becomes more prophetic, proclaiming that he is "not so far from you" and explaining that "You desire more than men are able / Find me in your heart." "Eve Stole the Apple" increases the obliqueness of the approach to religion, melding imagery of Eden and crucifixion with folk characters like the fox.
Throughout the album, every time you start to feel Washburn sticking more and more to her native hills (aided in this endeavor by guests like Bela Fleck and collaborator Beau Stapleton of Blue Merle), she recovers a fuller sense of her Chinese influences, whether it be through chord voicings, choice of language, or images like "purple bamboo." She's so successfully acculturated to life in Shanghai that three of her tracks have been used on Chinese reality television. What better way could there be to bridge the cultural gap?