Dar Williams knows Northampton — and she’s coming back to her old stomping grounds Saturday night with Cry Cry Cry

  • Richard Shindell, Dar Williams, and Lucy Kaplansky of Cry Cry Cry

  • Dar Williams, left, Lucy Kaplansky, and Richard Shindell make up the folk trio Cry Cry Cry. Photo by Jo Chattman

For the Gazette
Published: 3/29/2018 2:34:16 PM

Dar Williams knows how to work a Northampton crowd. The last time she performed here, in October 2017, she told her audience about her “perfect Northampton day — I got a cheap dress and expensive vitamins!” As it happens, she has her own personal history here: Williams lived in Northampton for around eight years in the ’90s. She fondly remembers sipping coffee at Haymarket (she also likes The Roost), shopping in Thornes Marketplace and meandering through stacks of books in local bookstores.

Williams is an author herself. Her book, “What I Found in a Thousand Towns: A Traveling Musician’s Guide to Rebuilding America’s Communities — One Coffee Shop, Dog Run, and Open-Mike Night at a Time,” was inspired by the small towns and cities around the world that she’s traveled through and offers insights into how strong community spirit helps areas flourish. Williams describes her book as the tale of “how towns found their lives and went from drug deals on every corner to tomato and garlic festivals.”

Williams will be returning to Northampton on Saturday to perform at the Calvin Theatre with her band Cry Cry Cry, including fellow singer-songwritersRichard Shindell and Lucy Kaplansky. In 1998, the band made their debut with a self-titled album of acoustic covers of some of their favorite songs (including R.E.M.’s “Fall on Me”), followed by a national tour the next year.

“I love the Calvin itself, I love the audiences — they’re very fun but also very smart,” Williams says. She first started performing in small coffeehouses in Boston, where she developed her stage persona, combating the stage fright she struggled with in her early days. Williams’ career was kickstarted when she opened for Joan Baez during her 1996 tour. Since then, Williams has become a pillar in the folk-music scene. She is credited with popularizing folk music and was dubbed “one of America’s very best singer-songwriters” by The New Yorker.

Daily Hampshire Gazette: When did you first meet Richard and Lucy of Cry Cry Cry?

Dar Williams: Richard and I did a tour together in 1997, and we would sound check together and sing songs by other people and do all sorts of harmonies. A lot of those were songs by our friends; we thought we’d do an album of music by our friends to highlight and introduce some of them to the world. My manager said, ‘Why don’t you have a third person?’ And, of course, Lucy and Richard toured together a lot so Lucy was the obvious choice. [The group] became a really big deal and we toured for about a year. 

DHG: How has the folk-music scene evolved since you first began playing?

DW: There used to be a lot of conflict over what one would call folk and what one would call pop. It had a lot to do with your relationship to commercialism in general — what were you trying to say versus what were you trying to sell. I think that those are internal questions, but I don’t think we’ve pegged it to one genre or another at this point. The politicization of the genre blurred and disappeared.

To me, there was always something very important about the fact that the most defining thing about folk music were audiences who made it their lives’ work to find acts, to find music that was off the beaten track, to find things that fit in with their desire to listen and pay attention — not just to music but to their lives. There was always such a crossover. There was also a lot of care about how people shepherded these volunteer coffee houses and venues because it wasn’t a big-money genre — not every town has the Calvin and The Iron Horse! 

DHG: How has your music evolved over the course of your career?

DW: I am the last person to know on that one! It’s still the same. A song comes into my head, and I have to track it down and chase down the inspiration when it comes flapping my way. I lead a songwriting retreat now called “Writing a Song that Matters.” By sharing how I’ve written songs, I’ve seen that there is a process involved that has been pretty consistent for me from day one. I’ve also discovered that the songwriting process is really different for other people. I don’t think my music has changed much; if something is interesting to me, I follow it.

DHG: You taught a class at Wesleyan titled “Music Movements in a Capitalist Democracy.” What was on the syllabus?

DW: I’m used to feeling like the non-performers who write about music don’t quite get it. I assigned “A Freewheelin’ Time” by Suze Rotolo (Bob Dylan’s former girlfriend who is famously on the cover of “Freewheelin’ ”). I assigned chapters from “The Road to Woodstock” by Michael Lang.

We covered what I call the consciousness movement of the ’60s through music, the civil rights movement up to the Civil Rights Act and the black power movement afterwards, then the women’s music movement — which was really a lesbian movement. There’s also this great dissertation about the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival that I assigned that has really great first-person narratives of what it was like to go to an all-woman’s space and to experience the power of being a woman off in the woods of western Michigan. We also talked about modern music, streaming … all that stuff! It sprawled a bit, but I really love teaching.

DHG: Is there an overlap between your sociology work and being a singer/songwriter? 

DW: The short answer is no. What I really think happened was that I wrote these songs, and they took me into all of these different worlds that I observed. I wrote a book called “What I Found in a Thousand Towns” that is kind of a primer on “how to be a cool town.”

Basically, my songs were the vehicle that brought me into all of these towns and cities around the world. They also brought me into wearing leather pants at a Vogue photo shoot and doing an interview for The New York Times Magazine where I was horribly misquoted — and being part of this whole group of women who wrote to The New York Times about what an incredibly misguided article it was. [The article “Queer as Folk,” published in 2002, quoted Williams as saying that she kept her sexuality hidden as a “marketing angle” so as not to drive away her gay fans. “Couldn’t have been farther from the truth,” she says now. “So, yes, we were mad.”]

Seeing what the media do, and understanding all of the charts and graphs, the sometimes very meaningful, sometimes very mercenary twists and turns of where music fits in our society; where music is a capitalist product and where music is a message … What’s the line, and where do you draw that in your heart, and where does society draw that, and where does music fit in our democracy? Those were all things I got to see because my songs took me there. Sometimes the songs had that as content, but sometimes my songs were just about my babysitters or the old bar where people used to hang out.

 

 


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