One On One With Dar Williams
Mar 30, 2017 02:36PM
U.S. folk singing gives voice to people and stories often unheard; where do you focus and why?
It seems like the motto of the 1960s was “what are you trying to say” and “did you show up.” These were important questions at the time. I chose to support certain causes by doing fundraisers and aligning myself from the stage in a generally supportive way. When it comes to nuclear power, or our nuclear power plant in the Hudson Valley, I think it should be decommissioned. When you have a stand, you should take a stand and I wish I could do it more.
I’ve always said, everybody has a core statement—sustainability, justice and education and creative freedom have always been my main causes. It’s like a race—democracy versus capitalism. When democracy leads, capitalism follows, you’ve got generations of kids buying Crosby, Stills and Nash albums and are calling out the war machinery. Capitalism follows democracy. When you go the opposite direction, you watch pipelines being built and treaties being broken and voices being silenced. This is a moment when the people’s voice is poised to outpace this unfettered greed. Every one of those moments need to be amplified.
What inspires you to make building community a theme for you?
I think that my I would say my two main thrusts would be: don’t call it building community and bridge, bridge, bridge. If we want to have interesting, resilient, unique prosperous communities, basically start with your own interests but always think toward how your interests can bring in one church, and then another church, and the senior center and local businesses—so that there’s always some way for people to plug in in the community.
If you go project by project, thinking about bridges, the town will move forward. I’ve seen community-building events that don’t have the essential material—but seem like a saccharine concept. The effective towns start a festival around something like their favorite crop—the tomato, the apple or garlic and the towns dig into the projects, creating spaces that allow people to talk about like-minded projects as opposed to creating events that just build community.
I heard you were writing a book on this?
I am, it is on the idea I call “positive proximity”. The book has some of the best examples of projects for towns to become more than themselves. In so doing, these towns pull in a lot of different access points and points of interest. Like journalist and author Beth Macy said, “People and communities prosper only when they celebrate a diverse range of equal voices.”
The best example I know of is Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, where they celebrate Blobfest. It is a fantastic sci-fi weekend in the town where part of the 1958 film, The Blob, was filmed. It’s fun, it’s silly. It ranges from a variety show with ushers in bouffant hairdos and big dresses to serious sci-fi lectures and screenings of The Blob. Businesses that participate with their window displays and their sales. Out of that has come a culture that supports the theater where it happens.
From Blobfest, they also have started a great event called The Firebird Festival. People are of different backgrounds and faiths all work together to build a giant bird out of wooden pallets and together, they burn it. When the time comes for the culture or a group to say “you are more divided than you think,” which is something we can all believe in some scary part of our brains, the collective response is “we’re just fine, thank you.” In Phoenixville, projects dictate the relationships and then the relationships are just so strong that more interesting projects happen all the time.
How do audience sing-alongs change the way people experience a concert?
For a long time, I was the girl with a guitar in a super silent room but I would feel that the audience became comfortable singing, dancing and moving together. Now I feel that you need to bring that element of participation into the concert and it is nice for me to know who’s there. It’s fun when they suddenly erupt into song and you didn’t expect that.
Peter Yarrow (of Peter, Paul and Mary) invited me to go to Newtown, to do a concert with the families and first responders after the Sandy Hook shooting. My first thought was, “Why do they want to hear from me, don’t they just privacy?” Peter was mystified because when people are in pain, you need to go right to them. I was wrong. He was right.
To learn more about Dar Williams’ body of work and her upcoming concerts, visit DarWilliams.com.