Dar Williams: Why the Music of Protest Is Still Worth Defending

We can’t change the world if we can’t even sing together—a star folk singer on what happens if political music dies.

It's become fashionable to say that political music is either dead or irrelevant. "Because of the '60s, part and parcel of being a 'serious music fan' is lamenting that music isn't political enough," wrote communications scholar Michael Barthel in Salon last year, in an article called "Protest Songs Are Pointless." The pop sound that's churned out these days by top-grossing industry producers, even when it's edgy or raging, is rarely political. But some of us secretly long for the solidarity that comes from belting out an old anthem together, without embarrassment. We wish it were possible for such a small act to foment revolutions.

It's never been quite that simple. Protest songs tend to grow from existing social movements, not the other way around. They nourish and reinforce the emotional strength necessary to confront political problems. And they remind us that we aren't alone in our convictions--this is how I felt when I first heard Dar Williams' music in 1998, when I was still a student. She reached into my Gen X angst, not with a political rant but with something far more personal. "I'm so glad that you finally made it here. You thought nobody cared, but I did; I could tell," she sang in "You're Aging Well," a song that seems to call, much in the way Gloria Steinem did, for a revolution based on self-esteem.As the music industry grows more consolidated, it supports few of the fiercely independent voices that define political folk music.

Today, Dar Williams is the torchbearer for a set of musical sensibilities that have deep roots in America's history of dissent--from the abolition songs of the 19th century and the labor anthems of the early and mid-20th to the folk revival of the 1960s. The small-framed, 46-year-old guitar player, vocalist, and mother of two has, for the past two decades, established herself as "one of America's very best singer-songwriters," in the words of the New Yorker's Hendrik Hertzberg.

I recently talked to Williams, several hours before she performed at a show in downtown Seattle, about the shape of today's folk music and how her political life intersects with her songwriting. In conversation, she is warm and unpretentious--her blond hair was swept up casually on top of her head, and she wore purple fleece and blue jeans. And also probing--she asked me about cycling, vegetarianism, renewable energy, and Seattle transportation politics.

Williams notes there's a "direct line" of influence from the 1960s folk revival to her own music, and this isn't just theoretical. Legendary folk singer Joan Baez got her start playing at the famous Club 47 in Cambridge, Mass., where she performed with other stars of the era, including Pete Seeger. Beginning in the 1980s, a second, albeit smaller, folk revival produced stars like Tracy Chapman, John Gorka, Suzanne Vega, and Ani DiFranco in New York and Cambridge. "In the early 1990s ... the re-emergence of the singer-songwriter movement coming out of Cambridge was my scene. It was open-mikes; it was late nights; it was song circles and tip jar gigs," says Williams--all against the backdrop of third-wave feminism and the gender movement.

"In the '80s, it was come out ... be open about your sexual orientation. In the '90s, so many people are out; that's when we discover this huge spectrum of ways of being sexual--the flexibility of orientation and, by extension, many ways of being a woman and ways of being a man." Williams became known for several songs that were subtly gender-bending, including "When I Was a Boy" ("I was a kid that you would like, just a small boy on her bike. Riding topless, yeah, I never cared who saw") and "Iowa," which leads with the line, "I've never had a way with women," though it's never clear whether the narrator is male or female.

Williams' career hit a turning point when her record label convinced Joan Baez to include "You're Aging Well" on the 1995 album Ring Them Bells, a collection of songs Baez performed live with other artists, including the Indigo Girls and Mary Chapin Carpenter. By comparison, Williams says, she was a relatively unknown "new kid," but Baez "took me under her wing and ... took me on tour." They went on the road together in Europe and the United States. Baez was a role model and inspiration to Williams: "She was very modest about her achievements ... but she had been a part of [so] many flashpoints in history. [Former Czechoslovakian President] Vaclav Havel said she was one of the handful of reasons why they had a non-violent revolution." But she also "represents an ideal in time," Williams says.

Political folk singers no longer have as much star power in the United States as Baez did in the 1960s--or such a major national audience or market. The nation is no longer gripped by collective angst over discrete causes (such as civil rights or the Vietnam War), and as the mainstream music industry grows more consolidated and constrained, it supports few of the unique, thoughtful, or fiercely independent voices that define political folk and other genres of protest music. Political folk has shifted to reflect the types of activism whose power resides in the community--the diffuse energy of farmers markets, town squares, small record labels, and local festivals. And this is where you find Dar Williams.

Barns, festivals, and hootenannies

I first saw Williams perform in 1999 at the Barrymore, an iconic neighborhood theater in Madison, Wisc. Built in the late 1920s as a space to screen the earliest "talkies," the theater was restored in the late 1980s and helped bring the surrounding neighborhood back to life. Nearly everyone I knew in Madison was at the show. One of my friends, who had worked as a cook on Pete Seeger's sloop and floating Hudson River activist hub, the Clearwater, gave Williams a jar of homemade applesauce after waiting in the autograph line.

This is typical of a Williams performance, which is sometimes as much a neighborhood social gathering as a show. Her songs have the feeling of an exhilarant and intellectual coffee shop conversation among friends--she sings about everything from Stanley Milgram's psychological experiments and activist-priest Daniel Berrigan to heartache, parenting, and her experiences with depression and psychotherapy. The lyrics are not propaganda or a rallying cry; they are songs that wrestle with human morality, emotion, and politics. "Neil Young wrote a song about his car. I wrote a song about a bar. We all have whimsical things that we write about," she said. "At the same time in some songs, there are issues of life or death. Poetry begets poetry. I think that is its greatest political contribution at the end of the day."

In the early years of her career, it was sometimes hard for Williams to name the community-based creativity and organizing she witnessed while touring at community theaters, renovated opera houses, barns, festivals, and hootenannies full of "eccentrics, crazy people, people who think outside the box," as she said affectionately. "I travel so much that I didn't have a community for a long time," she said. "So I was seeing it from the outside, and it was this mystery to me." She performed at a vast range of community venues and politically oriented music festivals across the country--including the inaugural Lilith Fair tour with pop star Sarah McLachlan and the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival, a "radical, clothing-optional, women-only festival in Western Michigan ... that really looks at the core of who has the power," as she told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Such experiences on the road led Williams to a theory of how political music, art, communities, and activism work together. She calls it "positive proximity"-- the organic and spontaneous acts of cultural change that happen through public art and gathering spaces--and she is hoping to write a book on the subject. "There's something that happens when there's some ability to congregate and see each other. ... Out of these places come unbelievable renovated theaters and ambitious community garden programs and sophisticated hotlines for caring for seniors. ... And of course those are the towns I get to see, because [they] have it together enough to put on a concert."

"When people come together and sing, mountains can be moved."In 2003, she moved with her husband to Cold Spring in the Hudson Highlands north of New York City, 30 miles from her hometown of Chappaqua. She put down roots in an iconic place--in the shadow of Storm King Mountain, the site of a successful 17-year legal battle against a power company that helped launch the modern environmental movement and redefine conservation law. And she's a few miles down the road from Pete Seeger, who has become a friend and mentor. "Pete [has] a certain regal presence in the Hudson Valley. His spirit is there."

Here, while raising her two children, Williams wrote the songs on the album Promised Land and her most recent record, In the Time of Gods, a concept album about Greek mythology. The newer record touches on environmental issues, with metaphors drawn from the landscape around her. One song imagines Pete Seeger as a mythological river sentinel. It is, Williams says, an album about the work of building civilization, "this beautiful hammering-away." This is also an apt description of Williams' politics. She is now putting the ideas of "positive proximity" into regular practice in her own life. She speaks with a near-frenetic energy about transforming Cold Spring into a model of sustainability--a center of car-free tourism and hiking. She and her husband recently held a meeting at their house over a pasta dinner to talk about the town board. It was another act of making space for creativity: "Out of those dinner parties and hanging out with friends, that's how [change] is going to happen ... not just because our ideals led us there."

"We need to sing side by side"

Williams is now an established veteran of folk, and her music part of the canon of political songwriting. It's hard to say who, among the millennial generation, is following most closely in her footsteps--folk is an ever more independent and local genre, and there are hundreds of songwriters who list Williams as an influence.

This past fall, Williams decided to step more actively into the role of mentor and music scholar. She taught a course at her alma mater, Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn. She called it "Music Movements in a Capitalist Democracy"--although, in Williams' view, the latter does not support the former well. "I'm not saying we shouldn't have capitalism. I'm just saying when you put music through this machinery, with no human society, no soil, no actual democratic community around it, it's not a pretty thing. And performers, audiences, genres get mangled in it."

The students received lectures about capitalism in silence, and Williams wondered if she had made them uncomfortable. But a chief lesson was about restoring a sense of community to music and vice versa. In the end, her students' creativity astounded her: "The last assignment was for students to design their own festivals. One person wants to create more commerce for a beautiful town in New Jersey and [strengthen] its connection to the Delaware River. She called it the Delawareness Festival. Another kid wanted a celebration of Alabama's music to heighten [awareness of] the issues of coal being dumped into the drinking water in Birmingham. My mind was blown--the dreams they have for what music can do are all there."

But Williams admits that political music has lost some of its idealism. She invited Peter Yarrow, of the 1960s folk trio Peter, Paul, and Mary, to visit one of her lectures. "I didn't realize how cynical I was until I saw the contrast between my approach to getting people to sing along and [his]," she said. "He made the class sing with him every five minutes. He's a believer ... that when people come together and sing, mountains can be moved. [His] attitude is, if we don't find that ability to sing together then we lose something very important."

I asked her if that experience had changed her performance style. "Yes, I've been trying to do one sing-along song a night, and it's the high point of the evening. At the end of the night, I get so much feedback from people about it."

Sure enough, that night I found myself in a crowd of people at my local symphony hall singing "If I Had a Hammer." "We need to sing side by side, and I know you can, because it's Seattle," Williams announced to the audience. And at first, admittedly, I felt silly, and the song seemed old and sentimental. But it energized the crowd and drew the attention of the room away from the sole performer and the single guitar on stage to a swell of voices across the auditorium. It wasn't anything like a revolution--but a reminder that it's possible for several hundred people to un-self-consciously hit the same notes, and that's a start.

Madeline Ostrander wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions.

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This article was written for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas and practical actions. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License.