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Appalachia Comes to Anhui

Abigail Washburn sings at the Coal+Ice Exhibit

This past fall, my colleague Sun Yunfan and I were preparing to bring Coal+Ice, the documentary photography exhibition we produce for Asia Society, to rural Anhui Province to participate in the Yixian International Photography Festival. Upon hearing that Abigail Washburn, a Nashville-based Mandarin-speaking banjo player, would be performing at the Bishan Harvestival coinciding with the Photo Festival, we immediately began thinking about ways to collaborate.

The banjo plays a major role in the folk music tradition of Appalachia, and when coal mining arrived in the region in the late 1800s, it inspired many songs. A concert of American coal mining songs in a Chinese ancestral hall seemed a strong way to present the American contribution to the coal dependency that continues in both the U.S. and China. In preparation for a concert in the Coal+Ice exhibition, Abigail researched the canon of coal mining music and discovered that while some early songs were celebratory, the romanticized notion of mining soon gave way to sorrowful songs with activist intentions.

Our festivals in Anhui were cancelled by the local government, but we had already installed our exhibition and we managed to hold a makeshift festival. Abigail performed a set of coal mining songs for a small group of guests and participants inside the Ming Dynasty-era ancestral hall where Coal+Ice was exhibited, and we also recorded a few songs in the space, Sarah Ogan Gunning’s “Come All You Coal Miners” and Jean Ritchie’s “Black Waters.”

Leah Thompson is a multimedia producer and the Associate Director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at Asia Society. At the Center, she has produced videos on issues ranging from arts and culture...