by Angel Haggar
It is Spring 2015. I’m in my ninth year of being knee-deep in babies and diapers. It’s the life I always wanted. Well, I cry more than I thought I would, but I’m happy, mostly. I’m too exhausted to remember the life I had imagined before I had a husband, children, a dog, a mortgage, more to do than time to do it, and more month than money. I’m clipping coupons and often failing to keep within my household budget; my husband travels all the time for his job. I rarely have a babysitter. I’m sitting down for a rare moment of quiet, scrolling through Facebook on my phone when I see a post about Dar Williams’ weeklong “Writing a Song that Matters” workshop in Garrison, New York on the Hudson across from West Point. My heart leaps into my throat. The workshop is $1500, plus travel. The deadline to apply for the space at the workshop is two days away. There’s no audition tape to send in, but applicants must write an essay about themselves and their songwriting.
Flashback to 1996. I’m 18 and full of unrealistic dreams. I debut an original song at my high school talent show in Parma, Michigan. After the talent show, Mrs. Wolber, an English teacher from my middle school, tells me that I remind her of a new artist named Dar Williams. Although I don’t know who she is, I am flattered to be compared to a touring musician who has opened for the legendary Joan Baez! Mrs. Wolber invites me to be her guest at Dar’s upcoming concert at The Ark in Ann Arbor, and I say yes.
The Ark has no lobby. Concert goers wear sensible shoes, dress for the weather and queue up on the sidewalk until the doors are opened. Then they walk in past the tiny ticket window, through a single doorway and up a small staircase into a hallway lined with photographs of past performers. The Ark is intimate, dark and close, seating only about 300 people. It’s run by volunteers who make sure live performance is accessible for music lovers from all walks and stages of life. First, guests find and save their unassigned seat and then make their way over to the coffee-shop style concession stand to buy snacks and hard or soft drinks and make themselves comfortable before the show begins. The stage is a platform only about one foot higher than the floor. Seats go right up next to it with barely enough room to walk between the front row and the stage.
Out comes Dar. She is completely unpretentious. She does not have the look of a rock star or a hippie rabble-rouser. She doesn’t look like she is entirely comfortable being in the spotlight, but I think she seems comfortable as herself. It’s just Dar and her guitar on the stage—and after a couple of smiles and shrugs and a short introduction, she starts to sing. When she sings, her mouth centers forward, her lips come away from her teeth just a little bit, like the shape your mouth makes when you whisper, but she’s singing in full voice. Listeners lean in to hear the secret that she’s singing to the crowd. Her music is folk-meets-rock and roll and every lyric is specially chosen for its job. There is not a speck of predictability in her songwriting, and yet it flows perfectly.
Her music is magical and I am spellbound. I buy two CDs: Mortal City and The Honesty Room, that night with my babysitting money. They are meaningful yet fun songs like “The Babysitter’s Here,” When I was a Boy,” “Iowa,” “The Christians and the Pagans” and “Southern California Wants to be Western New York.” When I get home, I get out my guitar and try to figure out some chords. It doesn’t go so well, but I decide I will write her a letter. I feel such a kinship with her—that somehow we are cut from the same cloth. It is the first and only fan letter I ever write. I tell her that I love her music, that my teacher thinks we sound a lot alike and that I would love to share my music with her. Maybe she could help me with it or teach me how to get my music “out there” or even how to get Razor and Tie’s attention because I need a small record label to pay attention to my music. I know she could help me because she is, um, like, a regular person who also happens to be on tour and have her own CDs.
About a month passes and she writes me back in her own handwriting. I am ecstatic. She tells me that she is glad that I enjoy her music and she wishes me good luck with mine. There is no advice, no invitation to send her a tape. I keep the letter for a long time taped to the wall in my bedroom. It isn’t what I want to hear, but it is the nicest way anyone can say, “That’s nice, kid. Now get lost, okay?” I am not any closer to understanding how to enter the music industry, but she is my new favorite, playing on my stereo more frequently that Carly Simon, Joni Mitchell, and Joan Baez. This is the ‘90s and the airwaves are full of grunge and alternative music and formulaic and saccharine pop. I want none of it. I want depth and meaning with a good measure of fun set to beautiful, unpredictable melodies and harmonies. It is all there in Dar’s music. I tell my boyfriend in a “very deep” conversation that if I am ever in a coma that he should play Dar’s music and that would surely bring me around.
The next year, I attend Calvin College and I introduce the girls and guys of my dorm to “The Babysitter’s Here” at Karaoke night. I want to sing “The Christians and the Pagans” but I don’t think it will go over very well. (Looking back, I should have done it anyway.) No one I talk to has heard of her at the beginning of the school year, but later when she goes on tour with Richard Shindell and Lucy Kaplansky for Cry, Cry, Cry, Calvin College is on the tour! I buy another CD and love every song. I buy every Dar CD I can find and attend her concerts whenever I am able.
I become a teacher and later decide to try my hand at sales, then become a mother and decide to stay home with my kids. I love having a family, but sometimes I miss doing “my thing”. I tell myself that’s what I signed up for. Maybe someday I’ll get back to writing, singing, and playing my guitar…someday. My musical life is singing kids’ songs, lullabies, at church, and occasionally listening to Dar’s CDs.
I listen to each over and over to learn the lyrics. Her songs are not the kind I can learn the first time I hear them (except for some of the choruses) but they are the type I want to sing along with, and they’re so textured that I can listen over and over again until I know every word without ever becoming bored. Dar’s music is my soundtrack.
Back to now. With all of this in my heart, I know I have to try to go to the workshop. But an essay? $1500?! I probably won’t be accepted, but I have to try. I call up my husband, on the verge of hysterics, knowing he’s going to say no. To my surprise, he does not. “We’ll figure it out, he says. You need this and you deserve it. If you can get accepted, we’ll figure out how to pay for it.” That night, as the children sleep, I write my essay and email it off, fingers crossed, but trying not to be too hopeful because I figure the rejection will sting less if I remain stoic.
A week later, I receive an email that I have been accepted to the retreat. Oh my gosh! Oh my gosh! Oh my gosh! No way! Aaaahhhhh! Now I need to come up with the cash. I pinch our pennies until they squeak, Allan takes some extra side gigs, I babysit, I yell at everyone to turn off the darn lights when they leave the room … but we make it happen.
It’s July 2015 and I am sitting in the nave of what used to be the church of a Catholic monastery. It is now known as Med(itation) Hall. Dar Williams is sitting on a cushion on the floor with me and about 30 other people. Some of them have been here before, others are first timers like me. We are sharing songs that we have written and I have just shared a song called “Every Blade of Grass” and people are taking turns telling me what they heard in my music. Dar goes last. She validates my simple song and assures me that simple is sometimes the most beautiful way to approach songwriting. I think I’m blushing. The rest of the week is filled with yoga, quiet reflective time, one-on-one consultations with Dar and a few of her songwriter friends offering insight, brief guitar and voice lessons, help with lyrics, and late night singalongs. The mostly vegetarian meals are delicious and keep us satisfied and energized, and there’s music, laughter, some tears and so much kindness. We songwriters are developing friendships with each other that will continue for years. We call ourselves “Dar-lings”, we call the retreat “Dar Camp” (though Dar gently discourages the term) and although we all come from different backgrounds, have different politics, religions, and beliefs that in other cases might separate people, it’s all peace, love, kindness and music. Dar’s music has drawn us here and her gentle and encouraging guidance draws even the shyest and novice songwriters to share their music alongside accomplished musicians. Dar, like her music, is all at once insightful, whimsical yet down-to-earth, instructive, fun and kind. Not average kind — Mr. Rogers level kind.
In the mornings, those of us who are so inclined get up before breakfast and go into the former church for morning yoga. Where a crucifix and altar once stood, there is now a giant Buddha, smiling at us as we gently stretch ourselves awake under our instructor Lara’s calming guidance. Each day, Dar gives a theme and Lara helps us to focus our meditation on that theme. For example, one day the theme was “Fire” so Lara encouraged us to feel fire in different stretches in various places in our bodies and had us meditate on the cleansing nature of the fire, and the fire in our bellies to create.
After yoga is a breakfast of yogurt, granola or oatmeal, various breads, fruits and eggs with plenty of coffee. We get our chord of the day from Rick Gedney, our resident wizard on the guitar. On “fire” day, it’s an E minor chord with the 9th added (Em add 9). Dar quietly breezes into the dining room later and gifts us the day’s writing prompts of “fire on the horizon” and “filaments of fire”. We’re encouraged to sit with a blank page with our writing prompts to see what might pour forth from our pens and later to “take it for a walk”, out in nature, mulling our musings over in our minds. These are techniques Dar uses to create her music and lyrics, and they’re helping us too. We all take turns throughout the afternoon having one-on-one sessions with Rick on guitar, Raquel with lyrics and Michele with melodies and Dar with putting it all together so that what we are creating really matters. We group for a kale-filled lunch and then have a little more time for our clinics and music making on our own until we reconvene at 3pm for group clinic in Med Hall. Dar is deconstructing one of her songs for us. She tells us how a little snippet of a lyric with a melody came to her one day as she was working in her garden or sitting in an airport terminal. She plays with it in her mind for a while–sometimes a year, and then when she sees some clouds another part reveals itself. Then she putters around with some different chords, carefully chooses each of her lyrics and makes a song come together. She never rushes her music. It is never predictable or trite. It is a tapestry woven of words and each lyric is a stitch that completes the image. After we’ve basked in her deconstructed concert, we share some of our own work and we follow Dar’s example as we give feedback with kind sensitivity. Each of us wants to improve and welcomes constructive criticism–but it’s heavy on the constructive part and very light on the criticism. I look to Dar as a student looks to a teacher, waiting for instruction and direction, but I begin to see that she operates in a more Socratic manner. We are all part of the creative learning process.
Later in the evening, after another veggie-filled meal, we go our separate ways for a while until it’s time for us to share more of our own songs and have singalongs with old favorites like “Wagon Wheel”, “Let it Be”, and “This Little Light of Mine” making up extra verses. Some nights we are back in Med Hall, but other nights we make a sort of pilgrimage with our guitars out into the dark woods to a large gazebo overlooking the Hudson. The trains and the barges go by in the darkness and we sing, surrounded by the scent of mosquito repellant and the candles we use to see our music. We don’t sing Kumbaya, but there’s a non-cultish, happy hippy, all peace-love-music-social-justic-and-fun vibe. Afterward, we head back to the Garrison dining hall for snacks and drinks before bed. Not everyone goes to sleep, though. Several of us go back to Med Hall and have a late-night jam session into the wee hours of the morning because we just can’t get enough.
At the end of the week, we have a closing ceremony full of tearful goodbyes with our new friends. I decide that this is not going to be a once-in-a-lifetime event like I originally thought, but instead that I will keep coming back.
And so I do.
The subsequent years are as magical as the first, if not more so, because more and more each year I get the feeling of belonging in the space and with the very special people around me. One night in 2016, Dar gives me one of the best pieces of advice, ever. We are chatting and I share with her a sweet voicemail from my daughter with her. I say, “Dar, it’s things like this that make me feel like I don’t suck as a mom.”
She said, “Let me tell you something. You don’t suck as a parent. Parenting is hard. That doesn’t mean you’re not good at it.” I like sharing this nugget with friends when they are struggling with something because that’s the way it is with anything that is difficult. It takes work. It doesn’t mean you aren’t good at it. Like a song with staying power, the advice is profound in its simplicity and applicable to just about everyone. When I share this, I feel like I pass on a bit of the spirit of being part of a community that seems to come naturally to Dar. So naturally that she could write a book on community building–and what do you know? She did.
In the summer of 2017, Dar tells us about the book she has written, What I Found in a Thousand Towns: A Traveling Musician’s Guide to Rebuilding America’s Communities-One Coffee Shop, Dog Run, and Open-Mike Night at a Time, about building community organically. She tells us about her own corner of New York State up here on the Hudson where she and her fellow townspeople have grown it from a bedroom community — just another stop along the Poughkeepsie line — into a thriving micropolis with its own unique identity: a place where families and artists can be involved, growing, exploring and really, truly, deeply connecting. Whether it’s building a new library or thwarting Roger Ailes’ real estate plans, she lives the truth that people thrive as part of a healthy community, and she strives to bring that spirit of community with her wherever she goes. As her song “Empty Plane” so eloquently expresses, “I leave for a living,” her career hinges on travel, touring with her music. As she’s not often playing for thousands of people at a time, her venues are usually in small towns. As a matter of course, she meets event organizers and people who play important roles in these towns. She listens to what people say and asks questions to more fully understand because she is naturally drawn to fostering community and relationships.
It’s November 2017, and I am back at the Ark in Ann Arbor, Michigan. It is updated since my first visit in 1996, but it hasn’t lost one bit of its intimate charisma. It’s even more exciting now because I have my husband and 10-year-old daughter with me, and for the first time in my life, I am “on the list” so that when I walk in and tell the ticket lady my name, she just hands me the tickets that Dar has set aside for us. I suppress the urge to wave my tickets at my fellow concert-goers’ while singing, “I’m on the li-st! I’m Dar’s fri-end!”
We settle in at our seats. We’re in the second row from the stage off to the side. Many of her fans have been here plenty of times before to see her at the Ark. Once people encounter Dar — especially in person — it’s very easy to love her. When I ask people if they know about her, they either haven’t heard of her, or they love her. I’ve yet to encounter anyone in-between. I think it’s because she’s so real. She is unpredictable, multi-dimensional and non-formulaic. I guess I could say she’s like a one-woman show of “This is Us” because everyone who hears her music can relate to it on a personal level. I look around me at the space: it’s a very Dar venue. It’s like an extra-large house concert — intimate and inviting. I look around at my fellow concert-goers. I hear them talking about her.
The pen is mightier than the sword; and when the holder of the pen is also a musician, real magic happens. The New Yorker describes Dar as “one of America’s very best singer-songwriters” and I would add that she’s pretty good as an author as well. This concert/book tour for What I Learned in A Thousand Towns is like Dar herself, superlatively engaging, approachable, and uplifting.
She gives us time for questions and answers. My daughter asks if she has really been to 1000 towns and Dar gives a little laugh when she tells us that this little girl has called her out. Almost 1000. Really close. She’s working on it, but 900 and some towns doesn’t have the same ring for a book title. We can’t get enough and we applaud and applaud until we’ve had two encores.
At the end of the concert, everyone is lining up for book signing and waiting for Dar to come out. She runs up to me and my husband and daughter, past the other people in line, and gives me a hug. I introduce her to my family and she tells my daughter, “Your mom is such a light in my life.” I feel like I am floating. My husband tells me later that all the people in line around us were looking at me like I was the only one receiving a rose on “The Bachelor.” I don’t notice because all I see is my friend making me feel special.
This summer will be my fourth year at “Dar Camp,” writing music, reuniting with friends I’ve made over the last four years, and undoubtedly making new ones, too. It really is a seemingly impossible thing that I have become friends with this amazing woman, someone whom I have looked up to for 21 years. She has given me advice on music and in life and introduced me to so many other amazing people — all deserving of their own commendations — and I love her for it. Even though my dreams had to be on hold for a while, I’m glad I never dropped the call.
About the author
Trained as an elementary and middle school science teacher, Angel can’t seem to stop herself from giving instruction on all of her favorite subjects, but she’s really nice about it.
You can find her on twitter @AngelaHaggar and at www.downtoearthangel.com.