Wu Fei & Abigail Washburn

Two Cultures, 26 Strings

Listening Post 252. “Pity the nation,” wrote Lawrence Ferlinghetti, “that knows no language but its own.” Far more satisfying than pity is listening to Wu Fei and Abigail Washburn, who know one another’s languages and express their familiarity in profoundly local and transcendently global music. Wu is a Beijing-born composer, singer and master of the 21-string guzheng; Washburn an Illinois-born, Grammy winning singer-songwriter and clawhammer banjo player. It was inevitable that the two artists—born the same year, married around the same time, both settled in Nashville—would meet. One pivotal moment leading to their joint album was a discussion about lullabies they sang to their children. When Washburn chanted the folk song Water Is Wide, the theme reminded Wu of the Wusuli Boat Song she has known since childhood. That first coupling led to other songs they could pair based not on key or rhythm but on function: work with work, homecoming with homecoming, seasons with seasons. The result is not fusion but coexistence, an interweaving of musical/linguistic threads from Chinese and American heritage in which strands harmonize without losing identity. Both artists also emphasize the diversity within their respective traditions, Wu contributing songs from minority Chinese cultures, Washburn honoring pluralistic elements in American folk, including the banjo’s West African origins. Their voices and instruments float together magically in the foundation track, Water Is Wide/Wusuli Boat Song, linking China’s Nanai people with a song brought to America by Scottish and Irish immigrants (video 1). They echo phases and passions of love in Four Seasons (video 2); and wage a dazzling Sino-Appalachian finger-frolic in Banjo Guzheng Pickin’ Girl (video 3). Wanderers return from exile in The Roving Cowboy/Avarguli, a spacious tale of two Wild Wests—Texas and Xinjiang, home to China’s Uyghur minority (video 4). There’s much to savor in Wu Fei & Abigail Washburn’s two-way prism that channels drama, humor, joy, shared humanity, diplomacy and wisdom into music’s brilliant colors. (Smithsonian Folkways)


Water is Wide / Wusuli Boat Song (乌苏里船歌)
From the album notes: 
The melody of “Wusuli Boat Song” was adapted from traditional tunes of the Nanai people in Heilongjiang province by a group of Chinese cultural workers in the 1960s… The Nanai were famous for their lifestyle of fishing, shamanism, and “a simple way of life.”
“The Water Is Wide” is the song of immigrants from Scotland and Ireland, the lyrics and melody passed along in the oral tradition of the eastern seaboard of the U.S… In most iterations it is a song of unrequited love or love waning with time. As the song has passed through hands and voices over generations, it has taken on different verses and meanings… In this version [it] is a story of the vulnerability and strength of motherhood.

Wusuli Boat Song (translation of Chinese lyrics)
The Wusuli River with the Nanai natives:
Mountains are green, and the water is blue.
Fish are jumping, and waves are flying.
Old mother rocks her baby on the prow of the boat.

The Water is Wide
The water is wide; I can’t cross o’er,
And neither have I wings to fly.
Give me a boat that can carry two,
And we shall row, my child and I.


Four Seasons Medley: Four Seasons / Dark Ocean Waltz (四季歌)
From the album notes: In China, a dozen folksongs are titled “Four Seasons,” each citing the seasons as metaphors for love and friendship. In this version, daffodil, pomegranate, orange, osmanthus, and snow represent a girl’s longing for love. The melody is common among the Hua’er folksongs in Qinghai and Gansu provinces… Fei and Abigail chose a ¾-time signature for the tune after the first two Chinese verses, and incorporate a poetic translation of the original Chinese, which they entitled “The Dark Ocean Waltz.”

(Translation of Chinese lyrics)
Spring comes with daffodils blooming;
Young girls come to pick the wildflowers, my love.

Summer arrives, girls’ hearts full of longing.
Pomegranate flowers turn to seeds, prettier than agate, my love.

My love, my love,
My love, I will take your hand.

Autumn arrives and tan-kwai fragrance is everywhere;
Girls’ hearts rippling and waving, my love.

Winter arrives, snow flying, filling the sky.
Girls’ hearts whiter than the driven snow, my love.

(English lyrics)
Springtime, I lay
To the earth to feel you rise

Summer winds may pull and pry
But my love will find you
Will find you

Fall leaves may hush the ground
Winter snows will layer, lower, linger, hover,
cover your body round and round

But my love will find you


Banjo Guzheng Pickin’ Girls (天涯海角走一遍)
From the album notes: A traditional tune, best known for banjo pioneer Lily May Ledford’s 1938 arrangement. Lily May added a feminist twist to the lyrics of this previously recorded song, focusing on traveling around the world and playing music with her band, The Coon Creek Girls. Wu Fei added the Chinese lyrics, imagining herself as a “pickin’ girl” in Tennessee.

(English lyrics)
Goin’ round this world, baby mine. (2x)
Goin’ round this world, I’m a banjo-pickin’ girl.
I’m goin’ round this world baby mine.

Goin’ to North Carolina, baby mine. (2x)
Goin’ to North Carolina, from there off to China.
I’m goin’ to North Carolina, baby mine.

(Translation of Chinese lyrics)
I’m going to Tennessee, baby mine. (2x)
Pluckin’ the strings,
I go sing and see the world.
I’m going to Tennessee, baby mine.

To the ends of the earth, (2x)
Pluckin’ the strings,
I go sing and see the world,
To the ends of the earth.


The Roving Cowboy / Avarguli (阿瓦)
From the album notes: The original title in Uyghur is “Hawagül,” meaning “air flower”; it became “Avarguli” because of the Chinese pronunciation. The song was arranged by Shi Fu (1929–2007) according to his understanding of Uyghur folksong… This version of “Roving Cowboy” comes from the 1927 solo recording of Frank Jenkins.

The Roving Cowboy, English lyrics
Come all you rovin’ cowboys, bound down this lowly land/I’ll tell to you a story, while you around me stand
I’m a goin’ to quit this wild west; it’s a bleak and stormy plain/For I’m a-thinkin’ I will leave you to never return again

So sweetheart, my dear sweetheart, for sure, dear, I can’t get along/I left my dear old father, my country, and my home
I left my dear old mother, to weep and to mourn/Go to be a rovin’ cowboy, and with the cattle roam

I left my friends and home so dear, with many a partin’ tear/My father followed, sayin’ “My boy, my boy, I fear
May God protect and guide you, and keep you safe from harm/Or bring his rovin’ cowboy back to his native home”

This maiden, fair and lovely, sits closely by my side/T’night she promised faithful, that she would be my bride
So I kissed away a flowin’ tear, grew dim from my blue eyes/I’ll never forget my darlin’ girl; I’ll love her till I die

I’ve tried the straits of ramblin’; I know their trial well/I’ve crossed the rocky mountain, where many a brave boy fell
I’ve seen the far and distant lands, full of Indians, armed and wild/I’ll never forget my dear old home, nor mother’s sweetest smile

Avarguli, translation of Chinese lyrics
Roamin’ soul, over the Tianshan, across the Gobi,
Let me tell you, beautiful Avarguli, you are the one I seek,
Aiyaya, beautiful Avarguli.

On the horse I sing and ride through Ili, and I see you, beautiful Avarguli.
Fasting days, scorching heat, Aiyaya, beautiful Avarguli.


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