Eileen Kern

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Fusion Music, Legitimacy, and the Banjo

I was chatting with independent musician and banjo enthusiast Dan Whitener about his website recently; we were chatting about what kinds of content would appeal to his visitors. When I started exploring TED Talks on my own, I was excited to find several that include stories about the banjo, and quickly sent him the link.

Dan recently posted on his blog about Abigail Washburn’s TED Talk titled “Building US-China Relations… by Banjo”, and what captured my attention most about Dan’s response to Washburn’s talk is his exploration of “legitimacy.”

I think that’s something that a lot of people deal with, not just musicians. In an increasingly multicultural world, we all want to feel like we come from somewhere real and important. I was at the library earlier today, in fact, looking through Alan Lomax’s book on American folk traditional music. I was grappling with these same feelings – the same feelings, probably, that Lomax dealt with when he went out to find this “real” music. But as much as it helps to research and fully understand the background and context of the music, the truest revelation you find is that people are all the same, and they’re all just trying to get through their day.

He also discusses his own experience creating bluegrass hip hop music with his band Gangstagrass, and compares the fusion of those discourses with Washburn’s combination of the deeply American bluegrass tradition and Chinese musical influence and culture. Dan’s response to this talk points to why these fusion projects work–because we all have shared ideas about what it means to be human, and our stories and our songs give us ways to enter additional discourses and cultures.