Riding with the Gods
Riding with the Gods
A Q&A with Dar Williams
By Geoff Gehman
Dar Williams had a crush on Hermes, the Greek god of travelers, long before she was a professional traveler, a touring musician with a ton of tread.
So it makes sense that she would write a song where Hermes picks up a silver-haired, sexy woman ready to leave the world on a motorcycle from the underworld. It makes even more sense that she would have the immortal messenger seduce the mortal passenger precisely because he loves her worldliness. Granted, Hermes isn’t a lover in the myths that Williams read as a youngster. But he doubles as the god of thieves, so why not make him a thief of hearts?
“You Will Ride with Me Tonight” is the first song that Williams wrote for an album of tales about contemporary characters shadowed by Greek deities. Released in 2012, “In the Time of Gods” (Razor & Tie) is an expansive, intimate guide to keeping your shaking pillars from falling. Williams invokes Vesta, the virgin goddess of family, to thank her husband for tending their two children while she’s on the road. She makes an Athena-like promise to her Ethiopian-born daughter that she will be protected as long as she carries justice in her heart. She even promotes Hera, the child-hating goddess of marriage, to a kid caretaker.
“In the Time of Gods” is yet another odyssey for Williams, who will perform Feb. 21 in the Mauch Chunk Opera House. She’s well known for writing topical, timeless songs about everything from depression (“After All”) to sexual-orientation gaps (“The Christians and the Pagans”). She’s a crowd favorite for her witty stories and open-tuned conversations. A longtime community activist, she celebrates grass-roots improvements in her “Positive Proximity” program, donating bee-pollinating plants to public gardens. Her mission is inspired by the late global citizen Pete Seeger, her former Hudson River Valley neighbor and the star of her song “Storm King.”
Q: What was your relationship with Greek myths before you began writing songs with Greek gods as guides?
A: Growing up, I really liked my Golden encyclopedias and [“D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths”]; those were my go-to books. Before I could read I spent a lot of time staring at the pictures. I had my favorite gods and Hermes certainly was one of them, even though I didn’t do a lot of traveling in my early years. I grew up in one place [Chappaqua, N.Y.] my whole life and I stayed in college [Wesleyan University] for four years. When I went on the road as a musician for the first time, it was all open mikes and empty bars and it felt like a natural thing. So I think there was always that recognition that Hermes, this god of travelers and people who live by their wits, was my guy.
Q: “In the Time of Gods” has songs for your husband, your daughter, yourself and anyone else curious about this yo-yo relationship between fate and free will, chaos and civilization. Does that mean that this is your first universal family album?
A: No. Selfishly, it’s about me again [laughs]. “Promised Land” [her 2008 record] has songs about the witch hunts and [psychologist] Stanley Milgram’s experiments about obedience. There’s a lot of: How do you access your morality? “In the Time of Gods” is more like: How do you keep the faith as you watch the pillars shaking? There’s this moment when you feel the foundation can crack, a moment that you’ve never experienced. In Greek mythology things don’t get fixed because gods fix them; they get fixed because you wake up in the morning and try to find some relationship with all the forces around you. It’s not a matter of being forgiven; it’s a matter of rolling up your sleeves and making the choice to be civilized.
Greek myths make more sense to me than the Bible. The Bible always confused me because it’s all about hoping that one god will forgive you. In Greek myths people have to deal with a whole bunch of different characters and struggles. They have to decide who gets the white lie, and who gets the whole truth. It’s all about how do you build the whole world around you, as opposed to this litmus test of right and wrong.
I’ve always liked the tug of war between humans and gods. Growing up, I really liked the story of Prometheus bringing fire to people and getting punished. Greek myths somehow prepared me for life in the music world, where people have pure hearts and terrible social skills. Again, it’s not a matter of who’s right and who’s wrong; it’s a matter of how do we deal with each other.
Q: Pete Seeger was—is—a role model for you—as a humanitarian musician, a global citizen, a neighbor. In the song “Storm King” you view him as a towering guide, both lofty and earthy. Did you have any encounters with him that left a mark?
A: He always left a mark. I remember I was walking down a path with him and he started to point to all the invasive species in our area and he was telling me about projects to [eradicate the plant invasions]. While we were walking and talking people were stopping to thank him for changing their lives. And he nodded and smiled and kept on walking and talking.
Another time we were in the kitchen of a school cafeteria, which was the dressing room for a benefit for [fabled musician/storyteller] Utah Phillips, who was dying—he died a week later. Pete was talking to me about a biographer who said he was very serious about his career. Pete paused and looked very serious and said: “I never gave a shit about my career.” I got the sense that if he had ever given a shit about his career, he would have blown his career.
There are a lot of people who will talk about how their career should go–how fast it has to be moving, the trajectory. Not Pete. He had his ups and downs, but his career was organic. That’s a valuable reminder for all of us.
Q: What was the toughest time in your career and how did you get right?
A: The toughest times were during the recessions, the ones we all went through together as musicians. The first one happened around 2005-06, when there was a sudden decline in record sales, even digital record sales. My sales were cut in half, immediately. The second one was the recession itself [in 2008-09], which, strangely enough, was easier. In both cases I was helped by friendship and by writing songs. Every single time there’s been a problem with me or the numbers around my career it’s always been a matter of getting back to writing songs.
When record companies went down, the circus atmosphere went away, where companies signed a lot of new bands, told you to listen to a lot of newly signed bands, and a lot of those bands were crap and disappeared in two weeks. Today, it’s a pushy, excessive business; now you can’t sell your records if you’re just a band. The record business is all about cross-entertainer bands that are very theatrical, play in big arenas, have merchandising empires around them, take up the air space.
The new record business is less colorful than the old record business. Even though the old one was sleazy, it was also a little fun and a little adventurous. I kind of miss that circus.
Q: You’ve said that performing solo gives you the freedom to show more selves, to let your Lily Tomlin flag fly. What’s the best lesson you learned about being comfortable onstage, about tuning into an audience and staying tuned?
A: One day in late 1992 in Cambridge [,Mass.] I was really frustrated with the idea of going onstage and working to a script. Suddenly, it clicked that I could be like an actor and let my character filter into the songs, into the act–I could be myself. So I let it all hang out and the audience responded immediately and I immediately felt that relationship. That’s when I learned I could sing better; that’s when my hands stopped shaking. I learned that if I forgot a lyric, I could tell a joke. I could.keep on going; I could get by.
Breaking away from the script and the emotional prescription was so revealing, so liberating. I once heard an opera singer asked, on the radio: “What’s the hardest part of your job?” And she said: “Hearing a note come out of my mouth and knowing it was not perfect.”
Q: Do you have a favorite memory of Cry Cry Cry, your 1998-2000 trio with Lucy Kaplansky and Richard Shindell?
A: We loved finding new songs and working them up. Maybe the most definitive moment was when we were trying to learn Joan Baez’s “Sweet Sir Galahad” on a tour bus from Denver to Aspen. We were trying to get this one line right; there was this one note we wanted. We were passing by the Rockies on this incredible stretch of Route 70, and we were practicing over and over and over again until we finally hit it right. When we got to Berkeley and sang [“Sweet Sir Galahad”] with Joan, it was perfect, it was amazing. I had never been so happy with people who love singing harmony.
Q: Which songs on “In the Time of Gods” have had the most powerful reactions? Has “You Will Ride with Me Tonight” been endorsed by Harley-Davidson clubs?
A: I definitely sent it to my biker friends: Jorma Kaukonen and an actress on “Sons of Anarchy” [Maggie Siff]. She said people on the show liked it. I take that as a definite nod.
Dar Williams: The Scoop
She was five years old when she heard her first favorite songs: the Beach Boys’ “I Get Around” and Simon & Garfunkel’s “We’ve Got a Groovy Thing Goin’ On.”
She spent a year stage managing an opera company.
She toured with Joan Baez, who recorded her song “You’re Aging Well.”
She co-authored “The Tofu Tollbooth,” a guide to natural-food restaurants and stores around America.
Students in her Wesleyan University course “Music Movements in a Capitalist Society” had to design a festival.
Her song “As Cool As I Am” is an anthem at Bryn Mawr College; it’s even featured in the school’s May Day celebration.
Geoff Gehman is a former arts writer for The Morning Call in Allentown. One of his favorite other-world biker songs is Richard Thompson’s “1952 Vincent Black Lightning.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.