Williams ’89 Reads, Sings, Signs at Bookstore Event

Singer-songwriter Dar Williams '89 performed, and read from her new book, at Wesleyan RJ Julia Bookstore on Oct. 10.

Singer-songwriter Dar Williams ’89 performed—and also read from her new book—at the Wesleyan RJ Julia Bookstore on Oct. 10.

Dar Williams ’89 read, sang and signed copies of her new book, What I Found in a Thousand Towns: A Traveling Musician’s Guide to Rebuilding America’s Communities—One Coffee Shop, Dog Run & Open-Mike Night at a Time (Basic Book, 2017), for an appreciative audience made up of members of both the Wesleyan and Middletown communities during an appearance at the Wesleyan RJ Julia Bookstore on Oct. 10. The book is a journey through America’s small towns, where the Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter has toured over the past 20 years,

bearing witness to communities struggling in the face of economic downturns and thriving with subsequent revitalization. (Photos by Laurie Kenney)

Williams poses with her new book, What I Found in a Thousand Towns. Kirkus Reviews says, “During a time of political, economic, and social upheaval across the United States, Williams’s grounded optimism is a refreshing corrective,” while the New York Times says, “Dar Williams’s new book is not another endless parade of music memoirs. . . . [it] reads as if Pete Seeger and Jane Jacobs teamed up, more a report from the Green Party than the green room.”

“Writing a song is all about figuring out how to bring all the chaos of your mind into some poetic form,” Williams said. “Looking at cities is also about looking at how people figure out how to not just find stability in their structures, but also to express their poetry for their structures. I saw towns grow from really struggling to really vibrant over a 20-year period, with no faith in themselves that it was going to work out. And then it did. And quickly—which can be dangerous, because some found themselves dealing with gentrification issues—but hats off to them that they figured out how to get their economy from drug deals to downtowns. That’s something to be proud of.”

The idea for the book was hatched at a dinner party Williams attended in 2011. “It all started with a conversation,” Williams explained. “A friend of mine said that proximity determines relationships, and I was cynical. And then I thought, I shouldn’t be cynical because that’s what determines the relationships in the towns I visit, in terms of their success. If people have a way of finding one another in the commons, and building on that, they thrive. If they don’t have that positive proximity in place, if they don’t have the mechanisms to find one another beyond their prejudices, then they won’t. The question is: What are the mechanisms that need to be in place to draw people into the commons to recognize how much strength they have in being interdependent? As I was touring, I saw exactly what mechanisms were in place in towns that allowed that. I felt like I saw something and no one was talking about it so I talked about it.”

Williams explained the idea of positive proximity by reading a passage from her book: “Positive proximity is a state of being where living side by side with other people is experienced as beneficial. I’ve been seeing this phenomenon of town building for more than 20 years. Someone starts something. Others join in. And then everything starts to shift into more clarity. More resilience. More good will. And more pride. Libraries find their way to the digital age. Schools improve. People actually sit and eat ice cream on the benches eerily empty for years. . . .”

A religion and theater major at Wesleyan, Williams set out to be a playwright. But moving to Boston soon after graduation changed her plans. “Boston was a music town, not a theater town,” she said. “I wrote a play and I wrote songs, and the songs found traction and community in the open-mike world, and I also found out how an environment will affect your life choices.”

After more than an hour in conversation with her audience, Williams closed her performance with a story about a friend’s chance encounter at a hardware store with legendary folk singer and social activist Pete Seeger—who just happened to be buying a hammer—before launching into a spirited rendition of the Seeger classic, “If I Had a Hammer.”

Additional photos of the event are below: