Folk singer-songwriter Dar Williams on Tuesday filled the spare, unadorned space of Jerusalem’s Beit Uri Zvi with devoted fans, most of whom knew each word to nearly every one of her songs.
That was just fine with the New York-born Williams, 51, who has played the coffeehouse circuit, folk festivals and intimate concert halls for the last 26 years, getting to know her fans well, while also collaborating and performing with singers such as Joan Baez, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Patty Griffin, and Shawn Colvin.
She is in Israel for one week, performing four concerts in smaller, more intimate spaces in Jerusalem, Modiin, and Carmiel, as well as at the Jacob’s Ladder winter festival this coming weekend.
Here in Israel, Williams’ concerts have been geared to the local folk music scene, as well as to summer camp alumni, for whom Williams’ music formed the soundtrack of their Jewish summer camp experience. She has performed at some 30 of those camps in recent years, she said prior to the concert.
“I’ve been performing since 1992, and I think some of you were there,” she said onstage. “And you’re like, Dar, it’s time to come where I am.”
The audience loved that.
Williams fills each song with images and ideas, forming miniature worlds that leave vivid pictures in the brain, like “Emerald” from her 2015 album of the same name:
Under a low cloud
Out of the northwest and through the Rocky Mountains
Across the prairies to the Appalachian
Rises now the Pennsylvania farms into the traffic of the eastern cities
Into my town, onto my street
Up the stairs, into my house
Grab the kids, and out the back into the garden.
Then there was “Christians and the Pagans,” which Williams said was written as a kind of ecumenical Christmas song, tackling religion and sexual orientation through the complicated tale of a lesbian, pagan couple spending the holidays with a Christian relative, and the challenges that scenario presents.
The food was great, the tree plugged in, the meal had gone without a hitch,
Till Timmy turned to Amber and said, “Is it true that you’re a witch?”
His mom jumped up and said, “The pies are burning, ” and she hit the kitchen,
And it was Jane who spoke, she said, “It’s true, your cousin’s not a Christian.”
“But we love trees, we love the snow, the friends we have, the world we share,
And you find magic from your God, and we find magic everywhere,”
That song, Williams told the audience, speaks to her own feelings about religion. She was a religion major in college, and, “loved every religion and almost converted to Judaism… but then the semester ended.”
Williams’ clear love of Jewry and the inner workings of the Jewish community came across loud and clear: her knowledge of Jewish summer camps, her familiarity with Hebrew terms like “tikkun olam” (social justice), and even this trip to Israel, which was criticized on social media by various fans and BDS groups.
In a brief interview before the concert, Williams said she preferred not to discuss the pressure on artists to boycott Israel. She did, however, note that she has leaned toward engagement and interaction her entire life.
“Collaboration doesn’t have to be a big romping success,” said Williams, “It’s along the way to something productive.”
With more than 100 songs in her roster of 21 albums, she has certainly been productive. Williams also penned a recent memoir: “What I Found in a Thousand Towns,” based on her years of touring around the US, and her concepts about towns and community living.
When referring to the book, Williams defines her concept of “positive proximity” as the experience of living side-by-side with people, knowing that one’s life is better because of the other people in it.
It explains a lot about her choices as a singer, and her very clear decision to be an active, thinking, singer-songwriter, rather than one seeking celebrity and hits. She has planted herb gardens with campers — hugging each and every one, she joked — while visiting those 30 summer camps, for example.
“It’s a different pursuit when you don’t have a Top 40 hit, and you have an audience that’s generally engaging and is into the process of how the wheel is turning,” she said. “That’s a good life.”
More information about Williams’ Israel tour can be found on her website.