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Dar Williams Keeps The Dissident Tradition Going Strong

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Dar Williams is abuzz, and it’s not about her latest album she is on tour promoting. (She's at the Somerville Theatre at 7:30 tonight.) In a recent conversation with the leading torchbearer for a dwindling scene of dissident American folk singer-songwriters, Williams instead wanted to talk about what’s happening to bees.

“I really want people to know about Neonicotinoids,” Williams said when asked what was new. “There is a lot of back and forth about how harmful they are, but I really think we need to work hard to ban them.”

Neonicotinoids, a pesticide normally used to protect crops from insect infestation, has recently been linked in studies as a potential high-risk factor in honey bee deaths. Opponents of the pesticide have lobbied for bans in America citing the danger to American agriculture. In July of this year the “Save the American Pollinators Act” was introduced to Congress.

It’s an odd interjection for a conversation with a musician, but for Williams storytelling and politics have never been mutually exclusive. A native of upstate New York, she moved to Boston in 1990 as the local folk scene was beginning to explode with talented songwriters like Patti Griffin, Ellis Paul and Vance Gilbert. An aspiring playwright, she became a stage managing intern at the Opera Company of Boston, but said it wasn’t long before she missed singing. Her age and the city of Boston provided the burst of inspiration that would launch her career.

“I was a pedestrian and I was single. That’s a lot of walking around and thinking about the future,” she said. “Everywhere I went my heart and eyes were wide open, everybody and everything being either a sign of something wonderful or breaking my heart. I would write my plays in the Coffee Connection and write my songs as I walked home to Somerville.”

Here's her politically-tinged "As Cool As I Am."

Williams released her first of 13 albums in 1990, sparking a career of thoughtful and edgy folk songs that have helped move forward the tradition of politically-charged folk artists like Woody Guthrie, Joan Baez and Joni Mitchell. An avid supporter of LGBT rights, women's rights, and freedom of speech on and off stage, Williams said she's learned the power behind movements rooted in music.

“It's all about undermining the status quo,” Williams said. “There is a huge social bond with music that can be incredibly powerful.”

Williams recently returned to her alma mater, Wesleyan College, as a visiting instructor for a course on “Music Movements in a Capitalist Democracy.” When asked about what she thought about the Russian band Pussy Riot's conviction by the Russian government for “premeditated hooliganism performed by an organized group of people motivated by religious hatred or hostility” for their protest performance at a Russian Orthodox Church, Williams voice strengthened.

“Pussy Riot is an example of just how powerful a music movement can be. It allows people to have a pamphlet of rhetoric of their lyrics in their pocket to recite at any moment,” she said. “If you are the head of the country and you have to resort to arresting people for only using their words to criticize your government, you’re in trouble. Something has gone awry and it will bite you in the ass ultimately. History will show that.”

At points in her career she's shown the poise and polish of her folk-pop contemporaries who have broken out onto the mainstream charts, but as she explained in her track “The Easy Way” from the 2008 release Promised Land: “I never took heavy words for granted /And I never took undeserved advantage /No, I never took the easy way.”

She's currently touring in support of her 2012 release “In the Time of Gods,” a layered, lyrically sophisticated, pop-folk album that's reminiscent of the Boston to Austin folk scene of the early 1990s. And while some of the story lines have changed from love, religion, and relationships to children and bees, the passion for promoting change through music has only increased.

“If you’re lucky there’s an audience that just wants to hear about what your brain has created, what you have to say,” she said.

This program aired on October 18, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.

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