We caught up with Dar Williams (described as “one of America’s very best singer-songwriters”) and asked about her upcoming participation in the very unique 2016 Guitar Mash at City Winery, New York, on December 11.
Elmore: How did you get involved? I teach a course that has to do with the relationship between social movements and music, and I was down at a White House conference with Pär-Jörgen Pärson, who’s a Spotify board member and involved in Guitar Mash. He told me about Guitar Mash, and it sounded right up my alley. It’s not what I’m used to doing, but it’s right there with what my heart believes in.
What draws you to this event? I feel that Guitar Mash is really done perfectly: music for music’s sake, and participation for participation’s sake are very valuable to the world.
Living two miles down the road from Pete Seeger for ten years, what I learned was that music can be this incredible lever for a social movement. When he was blacklisted, Pete Seeger played at summer camps and Union Halls, and got leagues and leagues of people singing together and learning things in common, learning the history of the songs, caring about music, caring about the lyrics, and caring about the songs. Guitar Mash is really in the tradition of Pete.
What are you performing at Guitar Mash? I’m singing two songs. They wanted one of my own songs and one cover that I do, so I poked around them. One is “The Christians and the Pagans,” and the other is “Comfortably Numb”—I did a cover of it with Ani DiFranco that was really fun, and now it’s timely in a weird way. There’s something about it that that resonates.
This is a departure from your usual performances. I was a girl with a guitar, and I stood up on a stage; it’s very quiet, and you sing by yourself and people listen to the lyrics, and that has a place in terms of social identity, but the ability to sit side-by-side with other people and comfortably belt out a song and really experience singing together, that is not what I did, so I am on this learning curve. I want to be part of helping everybody get more excited and comfortable with singing side-by-side. I actually have this game of catch-up.
I learned from Pete Seeger that there’s a whole skill set that comes with being able to lead songs, and to teach people to sing. That’s what these people—the core band and the organizers of Guitar Mash—do best. There’s a whole way that people can feel comfortable singing loud and proud—or strong and wrong (laughs)—either way. There are certain people who are really gifted at bringing that out of the crowd, and this group, that’s what they do. I’ve been working on learning this skill for a long time.
What’s your own strategy to involve the audience at Guitar Mash? I’m going to wing it…. But I am very social, so I think it’s going to be OK.
Dar Williams will also play the Bell House at the end of the month with some special guests, in an evening of “Christians, Pagans and Other Hipsters.”