Local Songwriter Dar Williams On the Key to Revitalizing Small Towns
The local musician and author talks positive proximity, Hudson River mystique, and her new book.
Photo by Tom Moore
Dar Williams is hopeful about the future of small towns, and the singer-songwriter bases her optimism on plenty of practical experience. During the last two decades of touring the country, the Cold Spring-based artist visited enough places to write a book titled What I Found In A Thousand Towns, which details how various towns reinvented themselves by focusing on the positive.
“As a traveler, over time, I watched towns and cities coming to life after the big collapse of jobs going overseas and the big box stores arriving,”said Williams. “At one point it looked like the landscape was going to be altered forever and there would be no downtowns left. These days it's the opposite. Downtowns are coming back and people are moving that in really creative ways.”
Return engagements provided Williams with case studies on what worked for the towns she visited and what didn’t. The book features stories about the people she met and how they reshaped the places they lived. Social involvement was a natural part of touring.
“A lot of times people had a concert in their backyard because they just wanted to support me or I would be part of a concert series that was put together with the time and effort of some really nice volunteers. There was a lot of hanging out and talking about the world, as well as getting shows off the ground.”
Revitalizing a small town — or city — requires something Williams describes in her book as “positive proximity,” the power of a few engaged citizens to collaborate on improving their immediate environment by promoting its positive aspects. This can happen, as her book’s subtitle declares, “One Coffee Shop, Dog Run & Open Mike Night at a Time.”
Williams’ favorite example of positive proximity happened in Phoenixville, Pa. The citizens of created an annual Blobfest by reviving interest in the 1958 alien horror flick The Blob.
“They started a celebration based on the fact that the movie The Blob was partially filmed in Phoenixville. It’s become this whole weekend with a sci-fi theme. When I went last it was Godzilla Weekend. The whole town gets involved. It’s campy and shows how much fun we can all have together when we put our attention into a downtown.”
Besides touring a thousand small towns, Williams has lived in a few different zip codes. She was born in Mount Kisco and raised in Chappaqua, and, after living in Boston, returned to the Hudson Valley, living in Red Hook before settling in Cold Spring with her husband and two children.
“To me the Hudson Valley is history and farms, it’s the culture that has come up from New York City and found new homes along the river. I feel a sense of connection to the countryside, the Revolutionary War history, the Headless Horseman, and the Capitol Region, because we’re all united by the Hudson River.”
The Hudson River connection was the subject of one of Williams’ songs, “The Hudson,” while her other songs delicately explore topics that include religion, gender identity, aging, and emotional growth. Writing a book, as opposed to lyrics, presented distinctive challenges.
“They both require a certain amount of confidence and feelings of inspiration and in that respect they are really very similar. What was hard about the book was finding myself wanting to find the perfect phrase and perfect word and realizing I didn’t have a week to write one sentence, which is what you give yourself to write a phrase for song.”
It’s not Williams’ publishing debut. She previously co-wrote The Tofu Tollbooth, a healthy food guide for travelers, with Elizabeth Zipern, as well as writing two children's books, Amalee and Lights, Camera, Action, Amalee. The idea for What I Learned In A Thousand Towns evolved slowly.
“I loved looking at the way towns worked and people interact,” said Williams. “It was like reading a thousand books.”
Published by Basic Books, What I Found In A Thousand Towns will be available online and at local bookstores on September 5.