US Catholic Faith in Real Life

City of refuge

By Danny Duncan Collum | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare
City of Refuge
Abigail Washburn (Rounder Records, 2011)

The banjo is the most American of instruments, arriving with the slaves from West Africa but quickly adopted by their poor white neighbors. By the mid-20th century, it had become a totem of rural American culture and an engine of the Nashville sound. But on Abigail Washburn’s City of Refuge, her banjo, played in the pre-Nashville clawhammer style, plucks and clucks along in company with the guzheng (a Chinese zither) and some old-time Mongolian throat-singing.

As a college student from Illinois, Abigail Washburn was fascinated by the sound of old-time Appalachian music. But she was also a millennial girl in a globalized world. She had lived in China, learned the language, and fallen in love with that deeply traditional culture. The American music business got her before she could study law in Beijing, but she’s kept a foot in both worlds ever since. With her Sparrow Quartet she’s played in China, and she did relief work after the Sichuan earthquake. She even sang a bit in Chinese on her first solo album.

On City of Refuge you can hear Washburn beginning to integrate her disparate parts into a unified whole. “Ballad of Treason,” while sung in English, sounds a lot like Chinese opera. “Dreams of Nectar” tells a Chinese immigrant’s story but in the musical language of an Appalachian old-time ballad with a gospel chorus.

Traditional music, no matter where it’s from, is about roots, and it inevitably touches on the spiritual. Washburn draws on these dimensions, from that immigrant’s prayer, “Don’t let me dream of nectar, make me fruit on the trees,” to the traditional Appalachian chorus, “Bright morning stars a’rising / Day is a’breaking in my soul.”

In the end, even if you listen to this record without knowing the names of the instruments, what you’ll hear is a gifted American artist sharing with us all the sounds in her head and all the people in her heart. And that works in every language.