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Annotated captions of Abigail Washburn: Building US-China relations ... by banjo in English

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If you had caught me straight out of college

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in the halls of the Vermont State House

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where I was a lobbyist in training

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and asked me what I was going to do with my life,

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I would have told you

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that I'd just passed the Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi,

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the Chinese equivalency exam,

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and I was going to go study law in Beijing,

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and I was going to improve U.S.-China relations

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through top-down policy changes

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and judicial system reforms.

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(Laughter)

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(Applause)

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I had a plan,

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and I never ever thought

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it would have anything to do

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with the banjo.

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Little did I know

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what a huge impact it would have on me one night

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when I was at a party

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and I heard a sound coming out of a record player

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in the corner of a room.

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And it was Doc Watson

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singing and playing "Shady Grove."

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♫ Shady Grove, my little love ♫

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♫ Shady Grove, my darlin' ♫

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♫ Shady Grove, my little love ♫

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♫ Going back to Harlan ♫

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That sound was just so beautiful,

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the sound of Doc's voice

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and the rippling groove of the banjo.

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And after being totally and completely obsessed

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with the mammoth richness and history

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of Chinese culture,

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it was like this total relief

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to hear something so truly American

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and so truly awesome.

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I knew I had to take a banjo with me to China.

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So before going to law school in China

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I bought a banjo, I threw it in my little red truck

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and I traveled down through Appalachia

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and I learned a bunch of old American songs,

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and I ended up in Kentucky

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at the International Bluegrass Music Association Convention.

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And I was sitting in a hallway one night

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and a couple girls came up to me.

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And they said, "Hey, do you want to jam?"

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And I was like, "Sure."

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So I picked up my banjo

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and I nervously played four songs that I actually knew with them.

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And a record executive walked up to me

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and invited me to Nashville, Tennessee to make a record.

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(Laughter)

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It's been eight years,

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and I can tell you that I didn't go to China to become a lawyer.

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In fact, I went to Nashville.

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And after a few months I was writing songs.

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And the first song I wrote was in English,

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and the second one was in Chinese.

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(Music)

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[Chinese]

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Outside your door the world is waiting.

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Inside your heart a voice is calling.

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The four corners of the world are watching,

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so travel daughter, travel.

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Go get it, girl.

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(Applause)

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It's really been eight years since that fated night in Kentucky.

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And I've played thousands of shows.

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And I've collaborated

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with so many incredible, inspirational musicians around the world.

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And I see the power of music.

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I see the power of music

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to connect cultures.

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I see it when I stand on a stage

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in a bluegrass festival in east Virginia

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and I look out at the sea of lawn chairs

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and I bust out into a song in Chinese.

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[Chinese]

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And everybody's eyes just pop wide open

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like it's going to fall out of their heads.

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And they're like, "What's that girl doing?"

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And then they come up to me after the show

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and they all have a story.

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They all come up and they're like,

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"You know, my aunt's sister's babysitter's dog's chicken went to China

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and adopted a girl."

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And I tell you what, it like everybody's got a story.

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It's just incredible.

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And then I go to China

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and I stand on a stage at a university

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and I bust out into a song in Chinese

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and everybody sings along

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and they roar with delight

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at this girl

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with the hair and the instrument,

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and she's singing their music.

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And I see, even more importantly,

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the power of music to connect hearts.

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Like the time I was in Sichuan Province

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and I was singing for kids in relocation schools

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in the earthquake disaster zone.

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And this little girl comes up to me.

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"[Chinese]"

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"Big sister Wong,"

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Washburn, Wong, same difference.

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"Big sister Wong, can I sing you a song

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that my mom sang for me

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before she was swallowed in the earthquake?"

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And I sat down,

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she sat on my lap.

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She started singing her song.

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And the warmth of her body

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and the tears rolling down her rosy cheeks,

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and I started to cry.

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And the light that shone off of her eyes

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was a place I could have stayed forever.

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And in that moment, we weren't our American selves,

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we weren't our Chinese selves,

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we were just mortals

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sitting together in that light that keeps us here.

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I want to dwell in that light

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with you and with everyone.

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And I know U.S.-China relations

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doesn't need another lawyer.

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Thank you.

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(Applause)