The Music of Dar Williams: Many Great Songs

Dar Williams, who is our special musical guest at the House of SpeakEasy’s opening gala at City Winery, has more than twenty years of recording and performing to her name. Described by the New Yorker‘s Hendrik Hertzberg as “one of America’s very best singer-songwriters“, Dar’s back catalogue includes nine studio albums, two live albums, a handful of EPs, a greatest hits compilation (warmly titled Many Great Companions), and two rare early recordings, distributed at concerts or to family and friends and available only on cassette, for the eBay hounds to sniff out.

For those of you new to Dar’s witty, incisive brand of pop folk, here’s a quick video introduction…

“I will not be afraid of women!” sings Dar on “As Cool As I Am”, originally featured on Mortal City (1996) and re-recorded in this splendid acoustic version for Many Great Companions. It’s a defiant refrain, one that announces her feminist credentials with thrilling boldness, and its confidence is no doubt part of what makes “As Cool As I Am” one of her most popular songs. Many of her lyrics describe the search for truth in the everyday; and it’s a transformative truth, “just like time, it catches up and it just keeps going”. By the end of the song Dar has left her partner, a man who cannot see beyond his preconceptions, and gone outside to “join the others”. “I am the others,” she announces, determined to see and be seen clearly, whatever the cost.

“When I Was a Boy” is the opener on Dar’s début album, The Honesty Room (1993), which she will play in its entirety at upcoming concerts in New York, Philadelphia and Cambridge, MA, to celebrate its twentieth anniversary. Mining her own tomboy past for material, she produces some great comic effects:

I won’t forget when Peter Pan came to my house, took my hand
I said I was a boy; I’m glad he didn’t check

And like many great folk songs, it has a twist in its tail. As the song reaches its conclusion, it appears that adulthood and a relationship have forced Dar to concede “top gun” status to her partner. But:

He says, “Oh no, no, can’t you see?
When I was a girl, my mom and I, we always talked
And I picked flowers everywhere that I walked
And I could always cry
Now even when I’m alone I seldom do
And I have lost some kindness
But I was a girl too
And you were just like me, and I was just like you.”

This playfulness, which is strangely moving, is a key element of Dar’s musical signature.

My final selection is from Dar’s most recent album, In the Time of Gods (2012). As the title suggests, it’s a record inspired by classical precedents and touched by the epic (read Dar’s account of its genesis here). The opening track, “I Am the One Who Will Remember Everything”, is seemingly driven by parental instincts. Horrified by the plight of children in conflict zones, “Taken in by schools of zealotry, / Who train orphans to make orphans evermore”, Dar paints a melancholy picture of the childhood that’s missing, with “stars for math and praise for good play”. There’s a pacifist vein running through a lot of folk music, of course, but rarely does it focus so powerfully on the damaging effects conflict has on children. It’s a powerful statement and a great showcase of the political strain in Dar’s music.

Like what you hear? Why not check out Dar Williams’s YouTube channels here and here. You can also follow her on Twitter here.

Our opening gala, featuring Dar Williams, is sold out! But despair not, for you can already buy tickets for our February 24 show, “This Is Not a Man”, featuring Tom Reiss, Anton Sword, Jeff McDaniel and Dana Vachon, on the City Winery NYC website.