Much of my music collection can be sorted into two categories. There's music to protest by, music that shines a spotlight on the world's injustices, played by musicians who support causes I believe in while playing some damn fine tunes with compelling lyrics. This music educates me and helps renew my convictions when I'm weary. Then there's music that provides a soundtrack for my life, songs that help me recognize myself, whether I want to or not. This is the music I play as I rail at God, cry over wounded relationships, or dance to exhaustion when I'm home alone.
The music I listen to the most falls into both categories. Singer-songwriter Dar Williams is part of the stack that remains closest to my stereo.
Raised in the suburbs of New York, Williams, 33, began her career on the Boston coffeehouse circuit in the early 1990s after graduating from Wesleyan University. In her warm soprano voice, she sang story-songs filled with startling insight and touches of wry humor, often from a child's perspective in a manner that captured wonder without becoming cloying. She steadily received both critical and popular notice; one New York Times critic called her songs "wordy rushes of truth." As Williams made the transition from local to national performer, word also spread over folk music Internet lists, helping to create Williams' intensely loyal and loudly enthusiastic following. (Williams now has her own e-mail list; subscribers call themselves "Dar-lings.")
IN EARLY AUGUST, two weeks before the release of her fourth album, The Green World, I meet Williams at her record company's office in Greenwich Village. As we walk to a nearby café for lunch, Williams tells me she has forgotten to wear earrings, and, knowing that a photographer will join us, asks if I mind stopping at a jewelry store along the way. She quickly tries on several earring and necklace combinations before finding one she thinks will work for photos and sparkle when she's onstage.
"Subtle details have their place," Williams says, looking in a small mirror and tucking strands of hair behind her ear.
In fact, subtle details abound in Williams' songs. As children play until the school bus arrives, one mother waits until they're gone before turning to walk home. The summer ends, and it's time to "hang your flowers up to dry." Williams notices these things.
She pays attention to weightier matters as well, and she's as eager to talk about her politics as her songwriting. Williams is committed to speaking out for causes she feels deserve attention and aren't being widely heard.
"I said to an audience once that my general goal is to help galvanize small movements. I've claimed allegiance to the folk community because I believe in alternative networks, musically and politicallythings that offer some contrast to the mainstream," Williams says. "I try to take the audience size that I have, which is 500 to 1,000, and focus on community and small urban causes, and put them on the map."
Williams rallies her audience both from the stage and on record. On The Green World, Williams tells a story of civil disobedience in the face of unjust governmental actions. The narrator of "I Had No Right" is Catholic peace activist Daniel Berrigan, whom Williams learned about when her sister gave her a yellowed copy of The Trial of the Catonsville Nine, Berrigan's verse play protesting the Vietnam War. The song begins quietly with just a guitar and Williams' pure voice: "God of the poor man, this is how the day began/Eight co-defendants, I, Daniel Berrigan...."
As the song progresses, the music builds, adding percussion, keyboards, and at times a wailing note of pain and outrage: "And all my country saw were priests who broke the law/First it was a question, then it was mission/How to be American, how to be a Christian...I had no right, but for the love of you." There's no resolution or final conclusion in the song's narrative. Maybe that's appropriate; Philip Berrigan, Daniel's brother and fellow activist, is currently serving a 30-month sentence in a Maryland prison for damaging an aircraft used to fire depleted uranium ammunition on Iraq and Kosovo.
This song is more overtly political than anything Williams has recorded before, and overtly political songs do not always come across well. Williams felt the weightiness of writing in Berrigan's voice.
"It was actually a little scary, to be honest, because it's about a strong person with strong beliefs, and you can't make that too subtle. What they chose to do is very bold. Their action doesn't shrink from the Bible or public discourse. To speak in their register is to be grave."
The song also introduced her to a new friend. During one of her concerts, a man asked when she was going to participate in another anti-nuclear action. Williams confessed her angst about employing direct action herself and said instead that she'd just finished the song about Daniel Berrigan. After the show, the man approached her and introduced himself; his name was Jerry Berrigan, Philip Berrigan's son. "There are some things that just feel like they're covered with the little paw prints of God," Williams says.
Through her friendship with Jerry, Williams played a Mother's Day ELF resistance benefit concert for Loaves and Fishes, a Catholic Worker community in Duluth, Minnesota. The U.S. government's "Project ELF" (extremely low frequency) sends coded signals to submerged Trident nuclear-armed U.S. submarines around the world; the frequencies are considered the "trigger" for a nuclear attack.
And sometimes the big movements draw her as well. Williams performed in April at the Jubilee 2000 rally in Washington, D.C., calling for debt relief for the world's poorest countries. She told the crowd she'd learned about the Jubilee march while packing in a hotel room and watching The 700 Club.
WILLIAMS SPENDS a good deal of time struggling with the personal and the political, as the title of her new album reflects. Williams learned about the "green world" in an undergraduate class on Shakespeare, whose plays often centered on the conflict between the orderly closed world of Elizabethan court life and the "green world"that place which takes you deep into the woods (literally or figuratively), where you face the unpredictable and undergo great transformation.
"I came up with the title before most of the songs were written, but it turns out all the songs apply. It's a theme that's really strong in my life, which is that you go through this chaotic green space, whether it be the green space of heartbreak or literally into the wilderness. Then you have to decide what you're going to do with the information you receive there when you go back to the closed world of laws and authority figures.
"In a song about the Berrigans, you try to change the system with the information you got in the green worldprayer, in that instance. And sometimes there's conflict and sometimes there's wisdom and great rewards."
Just a few years ago, radio stations had an unwritten policy of not playing two songs by women artists back to back. Then the music industry discovered that "women's music" can be not only relevant but profitable.
"Women have more money, and when women have more money, they're not going to choose male-identified women's stories," Williams says. "They're going to choose women's stories that speak of internal experience that isn't informed by the male lens of the camera."
Williams delves into the messiness of her own inner life to write in a voice based in truth. Her songs have frequently recounted her own battles with depression, which Williams explores without adding a layer of appeal to the illness. The romantic image of the tortured young woman doesn't reflect her own history.
"There are a lot of things in our culture that encourage women to inhabit a form of disempowerment. Coming into sanity...is about not posing and about really finding out who you are and trying to be authentic as that person. Disempowerment is a very sexy thing in our culture, and I don't want to feed that machine."
So in "Another Mystery," the exuberant romp that ends The Green World, Williams declares that she refuses to become "a goddess from the cult of beautiful pain," proclaiming instead, "I don't want to be another mystery."
Williams is set on learning more about herself as she grows older, even if the messages sent by the media and society tell her, in hushed tones, not to age at all. Joan Baez, one of Williams' heroes and musical influences, covered a Williams song, "You're Aging Well," on her own album. The lyrics ring true sung by either woman: "Why is it that as we grow older and stronger/The road signs point us adrift and make us afraid/Saying 'You never can win,' 'Watch your back,' 'Where's your husband?'/I don't like the signs that the signmakers made."
With a back-up band playing keyboards, electric guitars, and percussion, purists would say Williams' music on The Green World runs more toward a pop-rock sound than folk music, but for the most part the arrangements fit each song's mood. Williams sounds more confident and sure of her strengths on this album. But I found that I missed elements of her previous works, especially her biting humor and her way with couplets. (I kept waiting for something like "Now when Christians sit with Pagans/Only pumpkin pies are burning," an earlier Williams classic). What Williams does best is tell stories. On this album, her lyrics sometimes become a bit abstract.
The issues Williams grapples with stream both from her own heart and from the world around her. She sometimes appears a bit surprised at where both her musical and her life's journeys are taking her, as her lyrics reveal: "When you live in a world, well, it gets into who you thought you'd be/And now I laugh at how the world changed me/I think life chose me after all."
Williams is still trying to find her place in the world, both as a person and as a political activist. Most days, I'm doing the same thing. I'll keep her music nearby for my own journey.
KIMBERLY BURGE is a writer and editor at Bread for the World in Washington, D.C.