Truth is just like time; it catches up and it just keeps going
December 29, 2012 12:59 AM   Subscribe

You either know who Dar Williams is or you don't, but chances are that if you know her music, you've got a bit of a story behind that.

Her folk songs are rarely if ever heard on the radio, but via word-of-mouth, she tends to find fans across the U.S. and the world. For my own story, word-of-mouth somehow found the drama kids at Bartlesville High School in Oklahoma in the late nineties. Songs like "The Pointless Yet Poingant Crisis of a Co-Ed" celebrated us while giving us some perspective, but it was quieter moments, like riding home through forested roads in the dead of morning, listening to "Are You Out There" while getting my girlfriend home way too late, or sitting at home listening to "As Cool As I Am" over and over and starting to understand feminine perspectives, which made me fall in love with her voice and worldview.

Which led me to writing my college admissions essay about her "classic," "The Christians and the Pagans," which got me into NYU and then that girlfriend, by then an ex, even, sent me off to the east coast with a kiss and a mix-tape which concluded with her singing, a capella, my favorite line from "Iowa (Travelling III)," "And so for you, I came this far, across the tracks, ten miles above the limit and with no seat belt, and I'd do it again."

In college, I spread the gospel of her the best I could, which led one of my friends to giving me tickets to a show of hers at Irving Plaza for my birthday. That show turned out to be a recording for her live album, so I like to imagine that I can hear my own cheering in the background of thwat intimate-ish space, but I know that I hade to be there to understand that she is as much a storyteller as songwriter, and that one needs to hear "The Babysitter's Here" and "When I Was a Boy" in person to get the full effect.

Her brand of folk isn't a revolution. It is about therapy, or stumbling through self-reflection, or the beauty in the mundane, rendered with humor and sympathy. But it is brilliant. And it should be heard.

Some other choice tracks:

The Ocean
What Do You Hear in These Sounds?
After All
Playing to the Firmament (endearing teenage cover version)
Southern California Wants to Be Western New York
posted by Navelgazer (61 comments total) 61 users marked this as a favorite
Apologies for the autobiographical FPP, but it seemed appropriate in this context.
posted by Navelgazer at 1:00 AM on December 29, 2012 [4 favorites]

The only story I have is that I know Dar Williams via her cover of Fred Eaglesmith's song Wilder Than Her.

Actually, it's Fred's story.
posted by louche mustachio at 1:32 AM on December 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

Oh man, a blast from my dreamy past. I was basically never in her "target" audience, but she has genuine wit and sincerity that's hard to miss. I played the three songs of hers I could stand over and over.

Playing to the Firmament apparently is not on youtube anywhere, and yet is on Spotify. Huh.
posted by tychotesla at 1:52 AM on December 29, 2012

I love Wilder Than Her but I've never been able to listen to most of the rest of Dar William's stuff without getting bored. The exception is her work on Cry, Cry, Cry which is spectacular.
posted by rdr at 3:24 AM on December 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

A woman using the OKCupid username Another Mystery introduced me to Dar's music back in 2008. I'm not sure whether or not I'm in the target audience, but her lyrics definitely speak to me. "About therapy," indeed. We dated for about two years, but in 2011, after a somewhat painful breakup, we actually went to see her together at the Mesa Arts Center, because neither of us knew anyone else in the Valley who'd want to go. First time I've ever cried at a concert: "When the spring came and flooded all the streams / it's like how you got the night you told me all your dreams / and when the barn roof sagged after an icy bout / it's like how you shrugged when you knew the truth was the only way out / but not the only way, oh no.."

My favorite Dar song is still O Canada Girls, but I don't really have a story for that one, it's just beautiful. Also not on YouTube, which is a shame.

Since we're talking about Dar, how do people feel about In the Time of the Gods? I bought it on release day but I just can't seem to get into most of the songwriting. It's not bad, just different.
posted by Alterscape at 4:27 AM on December 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

I like her because she wrote the saddest song ever. Also, one of the most beautiful, "Mortal City", which is not on youtube alas.
posted by cthuljew at 4:31 AM on December 29, 2012 [2 favorites]

I discovered her with my mom when Joan Baez did a duet with her that I appreciate more each year, and then I rediscovered her in my adulthood (although I'm still not familiar with her entire oeuvre).

And I have to nominate "Family" for saddest/most beautiful. Makes me teary just thinking about it.
posted by pitrified at 5:47 AM on December 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

The singer Aaliyah died the weekend I moved into the dorms to start my sophomore year of college. This led to me downloading songs of hers from Napster. Somehow Dar's "I Love, I Love" ended up in the mix. I have no idea how but I'm glad it did. After the first listen I was hooked. I immediately bought every album I could. A year later she did a small show in East Lansing in the basement of a dorm building. There were probably 75-100 people in the audience, just her and her guitar with no set list. She just took requests all night. It was the best concert of my life and I still see her whenever she comes to Michigan. Her music guided my early 20s and the rest of college. Thanks for the post.
posted by MaritaCov at 6:13 AM on December 29, 2012 [2 favorites]

I discovered Dar right when I was very gingerly stumbling into high school feminism, and then ended up going to a college where we celebrated the end of the semester by blasting As Cool As I Am while wearing white and tearing off the bonds of the patriarchy (represented by toilet paper) before dancing under a giant tent full of flower petals. So I think there's a moral here somewhere.
posted by ariadne's threadspinner at 6:22 AM on December 29, 2012 [6 favorites]

I was Lovecraft in Brooklyn and I discovered Dar Williams as a kid. I'm not sure how - it was either through college radio station WFUV, through someone playing at the Acoustic Cafe in Bridgeport, or through random Napster searches. I sometimes I imagined her song 'I Won't Be Your Yoko Ono' was a response to Barenaked Ladies 'Yoko Ono', and that she was in a relationship with a member of BNL. I also remember reading an article in the NY Times magazine about her lesbian fanbase, which was a surprise to a straight boy. I never really followed her music but she did prime me for loving Anais Mitchell when I discovered her at college.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 6:53 AM on December 29, 2012 [2 favorites]

An ex of mine (we are still friends, of course!) took me to my first Dar show in...199something and I've been a fan since. Thanks for this!
posted by rtha at 7:13 AM on December 29, 2012

I've been reading The Chive a little too much, methinks...
posted by Dagobert at 7:14 AM on December 29, 2012

I have lost to February.
posted by serena15221 at 7:17 AM on December 29, 2012

Came in here to recommend Spring Street, which has often been a comfort to me in times of confusion/social claustrophobia.

Oh, and Better Things.
posted by likeatoaster at 7:18 AM on December 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

yeah, Spring Street is a good listen after February.
posted by serena15221 at 7:19 AM on December 29, 2012

The lyrics of "February" felt like divine truth during my first winter in rural New Hampshire where I was going slowly mad shoveling eight inches of snow off my car every morning. But it's After All that I don't think I'll ever stop listening to.
posted by gladly at 7:28 AM on December 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

There are people who don't know who Dar Williams is?!

This cannot stand.
posted by kyrademon at 7:33 AM on December 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

I went to the same college as ariadne's threadspinner but it was my first introduction to Dar. She played on campus a few years ago, and it was absolutely the most fun I've ever had at a concert-- hundreds of ladies dancing in the aisles and singing along, and it didn't matter how badly we were dancing, because it was perfect.

The downside is that she sort of ruined me for other concerts at college, but it was worth it.
posted by jetlagaddict at 7:36 AM on December 29, 2012 [2 favorites]

I used to play her on my late-night radio show quite a bit. And now I'm off to Rhapsody to play everything they've got of hers, so thanks.

And she's touring! But not coming anywhere near Arizona. But she will be in Colorado. Can I do a trip to Boulder in February? Hmm...
posted by MrVisible at 7:37 AM on December 29, 2012

I heard "The Pointless Yet Poignant Crisis of a Co-Ed" in the car with my mom and we both thought it was hilarious and we needed to hear more. I think this was before even End of the Summer came out; either way, Mortal City is still very special to me even though I don't listen to it much anymore.

Going to Dar Williams concerts with my mom and maybe a close friend or significant other became sort of a thing for a few years. We'd always try to catch her when she came to town, and at some point my mom took to writing the venues before the concert and requesting songs that were special to us. Dar always played them, and would mention us by name and say how cool she thought it was that a teenage guy would go to concerts with his Mom.

Then I went away to college and, in my freshman year, went to a Dar Williams concert without my mom.

Well, Dar Williams kind of lost me with The Beauty of the Rain, though I think the title track is gorgeous. My tastes have just shifted in that way they do in college. But Dar is responsible for one of those transcendent moments in my life, one that's permanently stamped on my brain in perfect clarity even more than a decade later. It's from after I went to that first concert away from home, when I hung around in the lobby hoping for an autograph, and she came though the doors from the concert hall and looked at me and said "Hi, Ian," without ever having seen me in person. Just that photograph my mom sent along with her letter.
posted by valrus at 7:51 AM on December 29, 2012 [11 favorites]

I hope no-one minds, but I wanted to put a link to another artist who I think Dar Williams fans might enjoy a lot.

Namoli Brennet - Stars
posted by MrVisible at 7:51 AM on December 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

Heard "Iowa" on NPR driving home late one night last year. Pulled over to Google the lyrics so I'd know what song to download as soon as I got home.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:53 AM on December 29, 2012

Eyewbrows McGee: That's exactly what I did when I heard "Coin-Operated Boy" for the first time.

Charlemagne In Sweatpants: Now I have to listen to tMG all morning.
posted by cthuljew at 8:11 AM on December 29, 2012

Dar Williams played a concert in the quad of my college when I was a first year. I remember how excited my older friends were because DAR WAS COMING BACK. I thought they were talking about someone who had graduated.

I thought nothing of it until I passed the quad while she played to hundreds of my peers. I'd later learn that this was quite an achievement for my school, getting hundreds of people to do anything at once (let us never speak of the Blackfire concert that only attracted a dozen or so people).

As I passed, I caught "Are You Out There?" and it stuck hard in my head, and never left. I remember I posted the lyrics to Everything2, since no one else had, I was so taken by the song. And Dar seemed pretty mellow and used to standing on a small riser in the middle of grass and concrete, and pretty damn affable to the crowd she had attracted.

Last year I realized I had none of her music on my computer, and I didn't hesitate to immediately open up iTunes and buy it up. All from hearing one song ten years ago.
posted by gc at 8:44 AM on December 29, 2012

You either know who is posting this co9mment or you do not.
posted by Postroad at 8:48 AM on December 29, 2012

That "Christians and the Pagans" song used to be my go-to song for dismissing the entire genre of twee-folk. I hadn't thought about it in years, I thought the people who listened to this stuff had all gone to the great lesbian bar in the beyond
posted by DecemberBoy at 9:05 AM on December 29, 2012

Nope, sorry, still here.
posted by rtha at 9:08 AM on December 29, 2012 [15 favorites]

Aww. I was a really dorky embarrassing superfan about ten years ago when I was a dorky embarrassing college student. I can see a CD (ok, two) with her autograph on it from where I'm sitting, and on reading this thread I definitely have something in my eye.
posted by clavicle at 9:14 AM on December 29, 2012

As much as I enjoy Dar, I must point out that "Cry Cry Cry" with Lucy Kaplansky and Richard Shindell is about my favorite recording (CD? Album? Download? whatever) ever.

They do mostly other peoples great songs, and do them really well.

Upthread "Wilder than Her" was mentioned. I have her doing it on an EP, but it's a slowish version. I saw her in SF at a wonderful show where she sand it as a shit kicking country rocker. I'd love to her it that way again, and would be ever so pleased if someone could get me a link, file or point to where I could find it.

Also, I'm pretty sure "The Baby Sitter's Here" is about MY baby sitter, Patty.
posted by cccorlew at 9:23 AM on December 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

We were rehearsing The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade. The director at one point gave us instructions that presupposed we had each been the most unpopular person in our junior high.

Dar Williams cheerily noted that she had not.

The rest of the cast stared at her in horror.

That's my Dar Williams story. (But not my favorite Marat/Sade method acting story, which is that while pretending to be an insane person pretending to be a rabbit, I accidentally acquired the ability to wiggle my ears.)
posted by feral_goldfish at 9:48 AM on December 29, 2012 [8 favorites]

Actually, if we're gonna talk about sad songs...
posted by cthuljew at 9:54 AM on December 29, 2012

Dar Williams is one of those artists I'd heard about long before I'd heard her. I know she's been kicking around KCRW's playlists for a long time. I didn't really start listening to her until I heard her great cover of "Midnight Radio" from Hedwig and the Angry Inch.
posted by eyeballkid at 10:56 AM on December 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

That "Christians and the Pagans" song used to be my go-to song for dismissing the entire genre of twee-folk. I hadn't thought about it in years, I thought the people who listened to this stuff had all gone to the great lesbian bar in the beyond

The funny thing about dismissing is that it rarely expands your social circle.
posted by srboisvert at 11:00 AM on December 29, 2012 [3 favorites]

I first heard about Dar Williams via Andi Lipman of Andi's Quotes (sadly compromised at the moment), back when I used to collect quotes in high school.
posted by limeonaire at 11:13 AM on December 29, 2012

Oh, Dar Williams. What I really love about her songs is that the lyrics are like the best short stories - they are so specific and yet she somehow manages to do that trick where you feel like you know exactly what she's talking about. I've had so many conversations about her music with people who really felt like they identified with certain songs of hers, and yet for completely different reasons.

Oh, and the other thing I love about her music is that it's serious and emotional, but it's also sort of self-deprecating and often fun. She doesn't take herself too seriously, which is one of the things that set her apart from a lot of the others of that particular generation of Folk Ladies.

Like lots of people, I fell in love with her music in college. Even then (late 90s), it wasn't the coolest music, probably because it was a little too earnest for that. But of all the music I listened to and obsessed over in my late teens and early twenties, she's one of the few artists I still listen to today. Her songs still make it onto my playlists, and I really never get tired of "After All" or "Iowa," or "Are You Out There?" or "As Cool As I Am" or "The Ocean." And I find new meaning in all of these songs as I get older and have more life experiences as well.
posted by lunasol at 11:20 AM on December 29, 2012 [3 favorites]

Mod note: Let's not get into an exchange of insults over whether people like this music; maybe let that drop?
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 11:30 AM on December 29, 2012 [3 favorites]

A few years ago my friend, herself a trained opera singer, convinced me to drive several hours with her to a Dar Williams concert. Afterward, my friend somehow got us backstage with Dar---well, more of a conference room---and gushed about about how she'd sung herself to sleep with "Calling the Moon" for years as a tween, was inspired to become a singer herself, etc. etc. Then Dar turned to me, and I had to say that until two days before I'd never heard of her, but I really enjoyed the concert! She was very graceful about the whole thing.
posted by ecsh at 11:40 AM on December 29, 2012

Ex-girlfriend is a fan, has a Dar Williams channel on Pandora, and played "Iowa" a lot after I came back from RAGBRAI.
posted by Halloween Jack at 12:31 PM on December 29, 2012

Strictly straightahead jazz vocalist lady I play guitar with sometimes brought me When I Was A Boy, totally smitten by the story even though it wasn't a Cole Porter tune. We did it in front of a bunch of stolid Jazz Jury types, me on acoustic 12-string and her putting on a white shirt and a backwards ball cap for theatrical ambiance. The audience didn't really get it, but we had fun.
posted by tspae at 12:34 PM on December 29, 2012

In the late 90s I worked at a vegetarian cafe in a midwestern college town. Dar Williams was in heavy rotation along with tons of singer songwriters. The owner did a local public radio show that showcased that style.

I met Dar every time she came to town for a show...she'd come in for fresh juice and some food and we'd talk her ear off. Super nice lady.
posted by schyler523 at 12:58 PM on December 29, 2012

She's got a myspace page, hmm is it worth a neophyte taking the hike down to cape cod in march? Wellfleet in march? Hell of a tour schedule!
posted by sammyo at 1:20 PM on December 29, 2012

I liked some of her stuff, but didn't like her as a person.
This is one of the saddest (true) stories ever.
posted by MtDewd at 2:06 PM on December 29, 2012

Can someone recommend me an album to try?
posted by dhruva at 2:08 PM on December 29, 2012

dhurva, I'd start with either Mortal City or End of the Summer.
posted by Navelgazer at 2:09 PM on December 29, 2012

posted by dhruva at 2:11 PM on December 29, 2012

She does an excellent cover of Comfortably Numb with Ani DiFranco.
posted by maggieb at 3:42 PM on December 29, 2012 [2 favorites]

For me it was Southern California Wants to Be Western New York. I'd moved from LA to Providence for college and it did such a good job expressing how interesting and foreign the Northeast was. It's funny how the "move out West" narrative is more represented culturally than the dislocation of the reverse trip, but that song made me feel like someone understood both the allure and the strangeness.
posted by dame at 3:42 PM on December 29, 2012 [4 favorites]

"When I chose to live / there was no joy, it's just a line I crossed" makes me cry a lot. And I'm way way past college age.
posted by moammargaret at 4:52 PM on December 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

I like her because she wrote the saddest song ever .

I'd forgotten this song. It really is beautiful. I love this style of music--Patty Griffin has always been my go-to songwriter for profound, achingly quiet melancholy.

Maybe love is waiting at the end of every road. I don't know.
posted by byanyothername at 4:55 PM on December 29, 2012

About the song, "February", there are a few things that stand out to me since, as Navelgazer said, there is a story behind my involvement with Dar. In the part that goes,

You said, "That's a crocus"
And I said, "What's a crocus?"
And you said, "It's a flower"
I tried to remember,
But I said, "What's a flower?"
You said, "I still love you"

it took me so long to work out what was going on here, but I finally figured it out. You see, they used to play around and say stupid stuff when they were in love, as people do. Then they meet up again after they've broken up, and they fall into the same routine of saying stupid stuff. And her ex-boyfriend realizes it's one of the reasons he loved her, but it is no more to be. My heart ached when I figured this out, and I wonder if my ex listens to this song sometimes and feels the same way.

Also, when she says "my new lover made us keys to the house" I took it to mean not literally that this guy at the hardware store is her new boyfriend, but rather that "any man" could be her boyfriend now that she's single.

Just some opinions that have been floating around in my brains waiting for this very thread to come along.
posted by mjklin at 5:23 PM on December 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

Oh God I was the most hopelessly devoted Dar Williams fan growing up. She was the first musician I liked For Myself and not because my parents liked her. When I was 11 I went to one of her shows in Davis, CA and made this adorable/embarrassing band t-shirt for the occasion, complete with individual illustrations for every song on Mortal City. A few years later I met her when she played at a Borders or something and asked her what her favorite book was. She said To Kill a Mockingbird, which I read immediately.

I... I really love her.
posted by rabbitbookworm at 5:24 PM on December 29, 2012 [2 favorites]

Although it's different than her other work, I've always loved Alleluia. ♫ Ron and Nancy got the house but Sid and Nancy rule.
posted by likethenight at 7:24 PM on December 29, 2012 [2 favorites]

Love that song so much, likethenight.

If we were really living in the future we could have a meetup at one of her shows and get there via transporter technology.
posted by rtha at 7:54 PM on December 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

Lovely post! "When I Was A Boy" is about as good as songwriting gets. And her work with Richard Shindell and Lucy Kaplansky on "Cry Cry Cry" is phenomenal, my personal favorite being "Cold Missouri Waters" (Shindell sings, but you can hear Dar's gorgeous harmonizing.) BTW, if you like Dar, check out both Shindell and Kaplansky—they're both just as fabulous.

I've met Dar Williams a few times in person. We live in the same area of upstate New York. I had been a fan for years and years, and had heard she lived nearby—so when I saw her with her daughter at the local farmer's market, I swallowed my pride and did the "Excuse me, but are you Dar Williams? I'm a huge fan" thing. She couldn't have been more gracious, and we got to talking about music, community, a mutual friend out in Michigan, photography, and vegetables. A few months later we ran into each other at a local gallery show, and she gave me permission to photograph her daughter Taya. Very cool woman.
posted by flyingsquirrel at 9:19 PM on December 29, 2012

Oh and her cover of "Highway Patrolman" on Badlands: A Tribute to Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska, is breathtaking.
posted by flyingsquirrel at 9:25 PM on December 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm reading this post at a very inopportune time. I should be heading to bed, yet I really would rather stay up and listen to every Dar Williams song ever. I guess I'll compromise and listen to a few favorites before bed: Mark Rothko Song, The Ocean, What Do You Hear in These Sounds.
posted by zorrine at 9:28 PM on December 29, 2012

Hey valrus, your comment just made me cry real tears for several minutes. I am a grown man. I am not supposed to cry on the internet, dammit.
posted by omegar at 7:44 AM on December 30, 2012 [2 favorites]

When I was an undergrad our women's center collective (because of course we were a collective) brought Dar to campus (because of course we did) and we took her out to dinner and such, so I can confidently say she was an absolutely lovely person with whom to spend an evening. Or was so in the late 90s, when folk singers and T-rexes roamed the earth.
posted by Stacey at 8:40 AM on December 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

I didn't know of her until a friend burned a disc of interesting cover versions and gave me a copy: Dar Williams covering David Bowie's Starman. I remember wanting to be annoyed, because, Bowie man, c'mon... but I still think it's a good cover.
posted by dean winchester at 12:48 AM on January 1, 2013

Dar Williams songs were a staple at my all-girls summer camp, where rarely a campfire passed without a (in my 11-year-old eyes, insanely cool) guitar-toting counselor or older camper performing "The Christians and the Pagans" or "Iowa." I remember going home after the first summer and rushing out to buy several Dar cds and playing them over and over and over. I didn't find any other Dar devotees until college. I haven't really listened to her much in the last few years, but now I will probably be up half the night doing just that.
posted by naoko at 8:31 PM on January 1, 2013

cthuljew: "Also, one of the most beautiful, "Mortal City", which is not on youtube alas."

It's on GrooveShark, if that helps.
posted by Karmakaze at 12:53 PM on January 2, 2013

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