Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Errant Light, the Power and Beauty of Dar Williams Lyrics

I'd like to talk about the artist I loved above all else before Buffy came along and I temporarily forgot about the existence of all other art and media - Dar Williams. As a singer and performer, she is beautiful, charming, down-to-earth, and and lovable. As a lyricist, she is thoughtful and wise. As an activist, she is caring and grass-roots. This is an amazing woman.

I love every single one of her songs, but here are some of my favorites, in no particular order:

1. The Great Unknown (from The Honesty Room) This is a beautiful song, eloquently questioning the wisdom of nuclear testing. The line "trying to put the atom back together" is so powerful. And everything she writes is so representative of not just her subject, but life in general. Who among us isn't longing to put back together something that's permanently asunder?

Some lyrics from the end of this song:

So I walked out into the gamma fields

Out in mercury, Nevada.

Where I stood in circle and that circle started to pray.

And the wind at the nuclear test sights floats the data at the radiation.

From the underground testing,

Cross the line, you’ll get arrested.

And we came from all over in a silent appeal

As the drill comes down like a presidential seal.

And we stand for the living, and we stand for the dead,

And we looked out to see your enemies,

And we see that you’re looking at us instead.

And you think I am being disruptive?

But no I’m running home, I’m running, ’cause I’m trying to put the atom back together.

It’s the great unknown.

I’m just trying to put the atom back together.

It’s the great unknown.

2. I Had No Right (from The Green World) This is written from the perspective of peace activist Daniel Berrigan, who, by the way, is also referenced by the other favorite songwriter, Paul Simon, in the song Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard.

Some lyrics:

God of the poor man, this is how the day began,

Eight codefendants, I Daniel Berrigan,

And only a layman's batch of napalm.

We pulled the draft files out,

We burned them in the parking lot,

Better the files than the bodies of children.

I had no right but for the love of you.

I had no right but for the love of you.

3. As Cool As I Am (from Mortal City) When I had a kindergarten class, all my kids knew the words to this song. I guess they didn't consciously get the point at the time, but I find myself hoping that some of those little girls, who would now be teenagers, come across these lyrics again and embrace the sentiment. My favorite line: "and I look out and say yeah, she's really blonde" - translated "you dumbass, she's just hot, not spiritually superior, and if that's what your shallow self wants, knock yourself out, I'm too good for you and I'm outta here."

The middle verse:

So now we're at a club, you watch the woman dancing, she is drunk,

She is smiling and she's falling in a slow, descending funk,

And the whole bar is loud and proud and everybody's trying, yeah.

You play the artist, saying, is it how she moves, or how she looks?

I say, it's loneliness suspended to our own like grappling hooks,

And as long as she's got noise, she's fine.

But I could teach her how I learned to dance when the music's ended

Oh -- and that's not petty, as cool as I am, I thought you'd know this already,

I will not be afraid of women,

I will not be afraid of women.

The memory of those little girls dancing in the classroom of the day care center, shouting "I will not be afraid of women!" still brings me to tears, and I hope they're still shouting it.

4. Empire (from My Better Self) This is Dar's most recent album, and it has great guest artists on it, Ani DeFranco and others. This song is a cautionary tale, hitting a little too close to home these days. Fascism, anyone? (And scary message aside, anyone who rhymes "ingenuously churlish" with "pessimistic, weak and girlish" deserves a medal.)

Words, all of them, it's worth reading:

Who's afraid of the sun?

Who would question the goodness of the mighty?

We who banish the threat,

When your little ones all go nighty-nighty.

Well, there's no time for doubt right now and less time to explain.

So get back on your horses, kiss my ring, join our next campaign.

And the empire grows with the news that we're winning.

With more fear to conquer and more gold thread for spinning.

Bright as the sun, shining on everyone.

Some would say that we forced our words, and we find that ingenuously churlish.

Words are just words.

Don't be so pessimistic, weak and girlish.

We like strong, happy people who don't think there's something wrong with pride,

Work makes them free and we spread that freedom far and wide.

And the empire grows, the seeds of its glory,

For every five tanks, plant a sentimental story,

'til they worship the sun, even Christ-loving ones.

And we'll kill the terrorizers and a million of their races.

But when our people torture you that's a few random faces.

Don't question the sun

It doesn't help anyone.

But the journalists cried out when it was too late to stop us.

Everyone had awakened to the dream they could enter our colossus.

And now I'm right, here you said I'm right, there's nothing that can harm me.

'Cause the sun never sets on my dungeons or my army.

And the empire fell on its own splintered axis.

And the empire wanes as the silver moon waxes.

And the farmers will find our coins in their strawberry fields

while somebody somewhere twists his ring as someone kneels.

Oh where is the sun, shining for everyone.

Oh where is the sun, shining for everyone.

If you don't find this chilling, I fear you're not watching.

5. Mercy of the Fallen (from The Beauty of the Rain) This is less political and more introspective. I love the idea that humility and tolerance come from experience and the learning that you aren't qualified to judge. I also love the astronomy imagery - beautiful!

First verse and chorus lyrics:

Oh my fair North Star, I have held to you dearly

I have asked you to steer me, 'til one cloud-scattered night

I got lost in my travels, I met Leo the lion

Met a king and met a giant with their errant light.

There’s the wind and the rain and the mercy of the fallen

Who say they have no claim to know what’s right

There’s the weak and the strong and the beds that have no answer

And that’s where I may rest my head tonight

All lyrics posted here are Dar Williams', not mine, obviously. I'm enamored of every line of her writing, but oh yeah, she sings, too, and musically, most of her songs are lovely and well-written and performed. Her website has lots of song samples.

Fellow Dar fans, please comment - what are your favorite Dar songs?

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