Dar Williams: 'Think in Bridges'

photo: Tom Moore

Dar Williams is an acclaimed performing folk artist hailed by the New Yorker as "one of America's very best singer-songwriters." Based in the Hudson Valley, Williams has sold millions of albums and toured around the world. She's also a progressive activist who hosts lectures and workshops. Her first book, What I Found in a Thousand Towns: A Traveling Musician's Guide to Rebuilding America's Communities--One Coffee Shop, Dog Run, & Open-Mike Night at a Time (Basic Books), presents a roadmap for rebuilding American small towns and improving communities in general.

This is a lovely and timely book. I've been reading about your music career, and my first question has to be about what inspired you to write this. What motivated you to carve out the necessary time to craft a work so comprehensive?

The topic just took me by the shoulders and shook me. A friend told me about a Harvard study that said our relationships are determined by sheer proximity more than values or politics, and I thought, Aha--that's what I've seen in towns where I've toured: some have 'positive' proximity, where they see their physical, neighborly closeness as a force of good, while others push away from one another distrustfully. I realized I was the right person to study towns and cities, in my own freelance way, because I've watched them "become" themselves in time lapse, finding their new post-industrial, or mixed industrial, identities. If you look at my songs, you'll see I've always been interested in how we locate ourselves within our literal and metaphoric communities, so I guess I'm not surprised. 

You quote several social theorists and well-known authors in this book. Who are your favorite authors? Who are the writers who've most influenced your worldview and how did they affect you?

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Cornel West came to my town in 1997 with their book, The Future of the Race, and in Cornel West's writing, he talked about how African-Americans had developed a rich cultural heritage of art that had a "tragi-comic sensibility." I feel blessed by all the writers who delve into the tragi-comic human condition, like Toni Morrison, John Irving, George Eliot, Tom Wolfe, Erica Jong, Sherman Alexie and Zadie Smith. I honestly don't know who I'd be without them. Now I see towns and cities as dynamic, unfolding narratives, and urban theorists like Richard Florida, Jeff Speck, Jonathan F.P. Rose, Robert Putnam and Jane Jacobs have illuminated this new landscape for me. They're social scientists, but their vision for our struggling democracy, in all its tragi-comic glory, is right there.   

Throughout What I Found in a Thousand Towns, you mention the concept of "positive proximity," which describes a sort of communal awareness and synergy between neighbors. You also mention the adverse effects of unmitigated consumerism, big-box stores, single-industry economies, etc. How can "positive proximity" make us smarter and more responsible consumers?

There are towns that amaze me with what they do with their social capital (the generator and net result of positive proximity), as opposed to their financial capital.  In our town, any item of a kid's outgrown wardrobe will go through about five owners before it hits the rag bag. We just started a community herb garden so that people don't have to buy moldy herbs from 3,000 miles away in lots of plastic packaging. We're not afraid to look to each other for things, and we are very pleased to be asked. And we find ways to support our downtowns, because we know our merchants are supplying the equivalent of a community hearth for warmth and conversation. Extra points for any community with a bookstore, no matter how small!

You explore some "self-segregated" communities, such as Wilmington, Del. Since the recent presidential election, issues of race, ethnicity and diversity have weighed heavily on the national consciousness. These are difficult issues, but you offer quite a bit of practical advice on how to better integrate communities though public spaces and collaboration. In your experience, is every community entirely different, or are there basic things all mayors should be doing to achieve racial harmony?

There's this great word: Balkanization. It means the division of cities and towns into defensive, antagonistic factions. Often we do it unconsciously. We're just going with the flow, hanging with people who are like us, and then, boom! Antisemitism, racism, classism.

At our best, in and out of the government, there are people who are consciously bridging the spaces between constituencies. They don't say, "Love one another." They say, "Cross this bridge I've built for you." My motto has become: Think in Bridges.

Related to integration is your insistence on citizens working together across political divides. I live in a predominantly conservative small town in Nevada and often struggle with how to bridge ideological divides and defend my liberal values without creating more distance. Given the heated political environment in the United States right now, what's your best advice on how to transcend partisanship?

I think if you and I were sitting down and talking about your town, we would look for the "identities" that define it. What is the history, where is the natural beauty, what is the local food, who creates culture or welcomes cultures in? When your town finds ways to put itself on the map, with a community garden, festival or just hanging up a sheet in a park and projecting movies on it, you become more proximal than partisan.

And, really, when it comes to political parties, some Republicans might think you're stealing their liberties, but there are Democrats who think you're poisoning their food. They can both be very distrustful. The real litmus test for positive proximity is who is willing to venture into the pubic square and bring their particular skill sets to the commons.

Artists, writers, musicians, etc. can be reclusive and introverted, yet you demonstrate how important they are to the identity of a community. Besides open-mike nights, is there another type of public event you'd recommend for community leaders struggling to coax budding artists from their hiding places?

Where to start? First off, I'd recommend being like Carrboro, N.C., tapping the participatory creativity and craft-making in your town: open mikes, jewelry-stringing parties, knitting groups and community finger-painting events, as well as art classes, dance classes and song circles--all of it. This will be kids' first introduction to creating stuff. You can show them that it's fun and you don't have to be an expert at it. Expertise can come later (and also in community spaces): group lessons, bands, orchestras and advanced visual arts collectives. If established artists see this raising up of creative spirits, they will lend their talents and materials to the cause. Most artists guard their precious time, but that does not mean they are antisocial! 

It's been a pleasure reading your work and seeing America through your eyes, Dar. Can we expect another book from you anytime soon? If so, can you give us an idea of what it will be about?

You are sweet. Thank you. I have three ideas. One is to address gentrification head-on. It kept on coming up in the book. How do we hedge it? The other is to look exclusively at what local businesses have done to survive, because there has been so much creativity there. But the book I'm definitely going to write is based on the five years of songwriting retreats I've led called "Writing a Song That Matters." I can't tell you how to write a hit, but I can say that the only hits I've had, such as they were, mattered to me, so that's where I start: What matters to you? --Scott Neuffer

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