A Banjo-Guzheng Duet and a Quick Look at the Stories Behind Its Songs

Screen Shot 2015-12-19 at 1.00.39 PM

Abigail Washburn and Wu Fei, friends who formed and played together in the smart Kungfu-Appalachian-Indie-Folk-Rock trio Wu-Force, beautifully blend “The Water is Wide” and “Boat Song” in this banjo-guzheng duet.  Both songs are based on folk songs popularized by contemporary versions that, at least initially, obfuscated their original sources.  One claimed to be as American as apple pie, and the other was the subject of a very important copyright case in China.

“The Water is Wide” is descended from “O Waly Waly”, a Scottish folk song from the 1600s, and often thought to be an American folk song thanks to American folk singer and activist Pete Seeger who included it on his LP American Favorite Ballads, Vol. 2.  

“Boat Song”, whose full title is “Wusuli Boat Song” 《乌苏里船歌》, is a traditional folk tune from the Hezhe people in Heilongjiang Province that became known throughout China because of an adaptation by Guo Song (郭颂) from the early 1960s, a time when the government promoted the cultures of the country’s ethnic minority groups.  Between 1964 and 1991, published materials recognized Guo as the creator of the music and lyrics.  After a 1999 CCTV broadcast of a public performance by Guo of the song credited Guo as a co-author of the song, a township-level government in Heilongjiang brought a lawsuit on behalf of the Hezhe against Guo alleging copyright infringement.  The court ruled that Guo failed to recognize the traditional source.  This landmark Chinese intellectual property case recognized minority ethnic group’s legal and moral right to their cultural heritage and products and established a requirement that modern adaptations must reference the original folkloric sources.

Pete Seeger – “The Water is Wide”

Guo Song – “Wusuli Boat Song”

Lead image: Screen capture from Abigail Washburn and Wu Fei video