Dar Williams: Why the Music of Protest Is Still Worth Defending

Photo by Chris Chin

Photo by Chris Chin

YES! Magazine

It’s become fashionable to say that political music is either dead or irrelevant. “Because of the ’60s, part and parcel of being a ‘serious music fan’ is lamenting that music isn’t political enough,” wrote communications scholar Michael Barthel in Salon last year, in an article called “Protest Songs Are Pointless.” The pop sound that’s churned out these days by top-grossing industry producers, even when it’s edgy or raging, is rarely political. But some of us secretly long for the solidarity that comes from belting out an old anthem together, without embarrassment. We wish it were possible for such a small act to foment revolutions.

It’s never been quite that simple. Protest songs tend to grow from existing social movements, not the other way around. They nourish and reinforce the emotional strength necessary to confront political problems. And they remind us that we aren’t alone in our convictions—this is how I felt when I first heard Dar Williams’ music in 1998, when I was still a student. She reached into my Gen X angst, not with a political rant but with something far more personal. “I’m so glad that you finally made it here. You thought nobody cared, but I did; I could tell,” she sang in “You’re Aging Well,” a song that seems to call, much in the way Gloria Steinem did, for a revolution based on self-esteem.

Today, Dar Williams is the torchbearer for a set of musical sensibilities that have deep roots in America’s history of dissent—from the abolition songs of the 19th century and the labor anthems of the early and mid-20th to the folk revival of the 1960s. The small-framed, 46-year-old guitar player, vocalist, and mother of two has, for the past two decades, established herself as “one of America’s very best singer-songwriters,” in the words of the New Yorker’s Hendrik Hertzberg. [Read more.]