Image by Tristan Loper
Dar Williams is a singular talent: lyrical, incisive, funny. In more than a dozen albums dating back to the early 1990s, she has proven her excellence as a songwriter, singer, and musician. In Mortal City (1996), she has a hilarious song about two pagans joining Christians for Christmas dinner, as well as a bracing ballad about going to the ocean for comfort and having it hit her in the face like a tidal wave: “What are you trying to find? I don’t care, I’m not kind.”
My favorite Dar Williams album, My Better Self (2005), showcases her extraordinary range. She covers a classic by Neil Young as well as one by Pink Floyd. “Teen for God” tells of a young fundamentalist girl wracked with needless guilt (“Dear Lord, I plan each day / with the things I will not do or say”). There are songs about longing for love (“Miss You Till I Meet You”), imperialist governments, a friendship that imploded, and the majesty of the Hudson River.
A featured performer at the The Progressive’s 100th anniversary party in 2009, Williams has always identified with progressive causes. She toured with Joan Baez early in her career and has embraced feminist, anti-war, and pro-environment positions. She’s taught a class titled “Music Movements in a Capitalist Democracy” at her alma mater, Wesleyan University. A mother of two children, she has written a novel for young adults, Amalee, and is working on a sequel.
Williams is also wrapping up work on a book about American towns. It will focus on eight places she’s come to know through decades of touring: Phoenixville, Pennsylvania; Moab, Utah; the Finger Lakes region in New York; Gainesville, Florida; Middletown, Connecticut; Wilmington, Delaware; Carrboro, North Carolina; and Beacon, New York.
I caught up with Dar Williams last Friday at the Barrymore theater in Madison, one of the stops on her Mortal City 20th Anniversary Tour. She agreed to donate $1 from every ticket sold to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a group devoted to cleaning up state government.
In person, Dar is as warm, gracious, and lovely as her music.
Q.: I’ve seen you perform a half-dozen times, and being in the audience has always felt like being part of a community—a community of people who love Dar Williams and would never do anything like vote for Donald Trump. Do you feel it’s important, in times like these, for people to embrace that sense of community?
Dar Williams: After this election, I’ve been listening to a lot of really loud disco. Like, I haven’t been listening to lyrics. I’ve just been trying to get out of myself, and I think there’s a real place for that. But I think people who are coming to these concerts, in this last week, are coming to reconnect. They purposely are coming to remember some part of their past because we’re recreating an album that’s twenty years old, or they’re coming to reconnect with a sense of words and lives that matter.
Q.: What do you make of Trump’s victory?
Williams: I heard about this steel mill that had closed down, and now the town has come back and there are 3,000 people in the local economy, which is great. There are all sorts of ways that people are involved with the economy. But there used to be 14,000 people employed by the mill. I asked an urban economist what he thought has happened and he really didn’t have an answer.
So you have a bunch of people who were told to find the next step, and there wasn’t a next step. Then there was this whole rhetoric about how, if you were just a better entrepreneur or a self-invented person, then you wouldn’t be in this mess. And then there’s this next option, which is to blame somebody else—not the corporations, not the bigger entity, but the smaller man.
I’m not enthusiastic about blaming demographics of people. But that’s what happened. I understand why—otherwise you blame yourself for what’s happened to the jobs in this country, en masse. So I feel that we have to shift, and the shift isn’t happening, and I understand how people experience disenfranchisement.
Q.: Who to blame is an urgent question. In your song “Buzzer,” about the infamous experiment where test subjects delivered jolts of electricity to others because an authority figure told them to, the protagonist is complicit. She presses the buzzer, even though she knows it’s wrong. Do you feel sympathy for her, or do you think she should be stronger, or know better, and do the right thing?
Williams: Ultimately, I would say my response isn’t sympathy, it’s empathy.
I was the parent of a young child when I wrote that song. And, in retrospect, I was channeling my shock at how many bad decisions I made when I felt cornered—about what my son was eating or wearing or doing. I was just under a great deal of pressure. The music business was exploding, and we all thought it was our fault. And I was a young working parent. So I felt cornered a lot, I felt pressured a lot, and I made decisions that I wasn’t proud of.
We all do the wrong thing. And then we have to wake up the next morning and live with the fact that we have done things that are wrong. And if we have people pointing fingers at us and saying, “You’re wrong,” where do you go from there? And where do you take the wisdom of having been wrong and learning to do better?
In fact, the self-righteous people who explained [to the song’s protagonist] what a fascist she was have been told by history that the test itself was unethical. I just find that to be so helpful, to those of us who feel labeled.
One of the guys in the actual experiment went to jail as a protester—he said because of what he had learned about himself because he was complicit in this experiment. I like those people better than the ones who are right from the start. [Laughs.]
Q.: In “Empire,” your great song about imperialism, you lampoon the various reasons governments concoct to torture and conquer. That can really work, can’t it? If ordinary people reject the justifications of imperialism, if they “question the goodness of the mighty,” as you put it, they can delegitimize those actions. Isn’t that kind of thrilling, that art can do that, that words can do that?
Williams: It’s very important to identify the language that they’re going to use before they use it: Your children are safe, so why are you arguing? By the way, if you argue, maybe your children won’t be so safe—from us. There’s a menacing undertone and it’s important to identify the chill that you feel.
I hope that phrases like “Work makes you free,” “Might is right,” “Kiss my ring,” and “Sent by God” will act as warnings and not truths. And poetry can kind of show you, in these catchphrases, that we have evolved to understand that language of power that’s taken too much.
Q.: There’s a line in your song about refugees, “I Am the One Who Will Remember Everything,” that makes me want to cry, about the little boy who “will grow with pain, and fear, and jealousy” and be an orphan trained “to make orphans evermore.” Do you see any hope for that little boy?
Williams: For the little boy, yes. For the man he becomes, no. I have friends who have survived very abusive upbringings, and they can’t tell me about it. But there was one English teacher or one fifth-grade teacher that they pointed to like a north star, and they followed the star. And then they surrounded themselves with people who they could model themselves after. So the good news is, a little nurturing goes a long way.
If I were to have my druthers, when I was retired, I would grab my two sisters, Meredith and Julie, and head overseas and just have kids sit in our laps and talk about frogs and turtles. You know, just be a very Mr. Rogers-like presence to as many children as I could find. I just think the reassurance and the steadiness and the hands-on kindness can make a huge difference. But the biggest difference would be made if we don’t have wars to begin with.
Q.: Are you optimistic about that?
Williams: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. It’s like what you said about “Empire.” When we learn about ourselves, we can evolve. I mean, slavery doesn’t have any positives. As I said in one of my songs, we’re still abolishing slavery, but nobody says it’s a good thing. Nobody justifies it. It’s a collective truth that slavery is wrong, that child labor is wrong, that gross inequality is wrong. God didn’t send it. And I think we’re coming to a place where we’re saying all war is wrong. We might even learn something about the sensationalism we get caught up in with people like Donald Trump.
Q.: Any ideas for things that people can do?
Williams: My particular expertise these days as a traveler is that I’ve watched towns and cities evolve and become very resilient, and fun, and unique, and prosperous on their own terms. And the secret is bridging. It’s when the local church has a fun clothing swap fundraiser with a temple, and then the next year they bring in the mosque. It’s one group working with the senior center, which works with the elementary school, which works with the Lion’s Club.
People see themselves as participants and they understand the importance of taking responsibility, so it’s actually something that’s meaningful and even fun in their lives. Then when people in government [make mistakes], they don’t say, those people in the government. They say, we’ve got a problem to solve. It’s just different. Towns that are doing well, that have a nice sense, where people walking their dogs talk to each other on the sidewalk, they don’t shit all over their local government. That’s just not the way it goes.
I would encourage people to bridge broadly and creatively in their communities, not just because that creates the most fun and resiliency, but also because it creates the most points of access for people to be part of the community, which is what democracy is at its best.
Bill Lueders is associate editor of The Progressive.