Song of the Day #575: ‘The End of the Summer’ – Dar Williams

Of all the artists in my music collection, Dar Williams is one of the few whose songs I would just as soon read in a book as listen to on record. That’s not a criticism of her voice or melodic gifts — she’s pretty great on that front as well — but a testament to the power of her poetry.

Because Williams is a poet, a label I wouldn’t assign to most songwriters. Songs are generally meant to be listened to, not read, and laying them out on paper (or a computer screen) makes that very obvious. And I don’t mean that as a criticism to most songwriters… I’m guessing they fully appreciate the difference between song lyrics and poetry.

But Williams is another matter. I don’t know if she’s a songwriter who starts with the lyrics and then writes the music or vice versa, but either way my guess is she spends most of her energy on the words.

Go ahead and read today’s song, ‘The End of the Summer,’ before you listen to it. It’s a series of sketches about endings and new beginnings and the sadness and uncertainty that accompanies both. I particularly like the third verse, which depicts a teenage girl preparing for the first day of school.

Which artists would you just as soon read as listen to?

The summer ends and we wonder where we are
And there you go my friends with your boxes in your car
And you both look so young
And last night was hard you said
You packed up every room
And then you cried and went to bed
But today you closed the door and said
“We have to get a move on
It’s just that time of year when we push ourselves ahead
We push ourselves ahead”
And it was cloudy in the morning
And it rained as you drove away
And the same things looked different
It’s the end of the summer, it’s the end of the summer
When you move to another place

And I feel like the neighbor’s girl who will never be the same
She walked alone all spring
She had a boyfriend when the summer came
And he gave her flowers in a lightning storm
They disappeared at night in green fields of silver corn
And sometime in July she just forgot that he was leaving
So when the fields were dying, she held on to his sleeves
She held on to his sleeves
And she doesn’t want to let go
’cause she won’t know what she’s up against
The classrooms and the smart girls
It’s the end of the summer, it’s the end of the summer
When you hang your flowers up to dry

And I had a dream it blows the autumn through my head
It felt like the first day of school
But I was going to the moon instead
And I walked down the hall
With the notebooks they got for me
My dad led me through the house
My mom drank instant coffee
And I knew that I would crash
But I didn’t want to tell them
There are just some moments when your family makes sense
They just make sense
So I raised up my arms and my mother put the sweater on
We walked out on the dark and frozen grass
The end of the summer
It’s the end of the summer
When you send your children to the moon

The summer ends and we wonder who we are
And there you go my friends with your boxes in your car
And today I passed the high school, the river, the maple tree
I passed the farms that made it
Through the last days of the century
And I knew that I was going to learn again
Again, in this less hazy light
I saw the fields beyond the fields, the fields beyond the fields
And the colors are much brighter now
It’s like they really want to tell the truth
We give our testimony to the end of the summer
It’s the end of the summer, you can spin the light to gold

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4 thoughts on “Song of the Day #575: ‘The End of the Summer’ – Dar Williams

  1. Amy says:

    This is an instance where I find the song does a disservice to the lyrics, as her choice to layer her delivery of the words certainly helps her create a mood but sort of throws the lyrics (and the music, what there is of it) under the bus in the pursuit of that mood.

    A song where I think the lyrics and music serve the mood is “Woman’s Work” by Kate Bush, not that I would list her as an artist I would want to either hear or read ;)

    Joni Mitchell, of course. Indigo Girls. Some Bruce Springsteen. Some Billy Joel. Counting Crows. Randy Newman. Lyle Lovett. Hmmm…. pretty much many of my favorite artists. With the exception of R.E.M. (where I can only understand 1/2 of what Stipe ever sings), there isn’t another band/singer I can think of off the top of my head where the lyrics aren’t an important reason why I love that artist or band. But those that I quickly listed above are artists whose songs I’ve brought in to classes over the year (just as Dana mentioned his teacher did so many years ago with Bob Dylan) to have the kids to just what you’ve said – read the lyrics as poetry.

    Still, for the most part (today’s SOTD as a notable exception), I’d still rather hear “Tunnel of Love,” “Vienna” or “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant,” “Chelsea Morning,” and the others rather than just read them.

    On the flip side, I wonder if any artist has ever put a poem to music. The poet Robert Burns wrote Auld Lang Syne, which may have stared off as a poem. Anything more recent? I’ll have to investigate.

  2. Clay says:

    Not sure what you mean by layering her delivery. It seems to be a pretty straight-forward performance to me. Maybe it’s the phantom Leonardo DiCaprio voice playing tricks on you?

  3. peg says:

    I think she would be one I would rather read, and I agree with Amy on Billy Joel’s lyrics, although I do love to hear him sing as well. Interesting thing about a movie I mentioned to you “Dangerous Minds” with Michele P., she was trying to teach her tough students poetry w/o success and she turned to Dylan’s songs and then when she was able to get them involved she had them compare the two Dylans–Bob and Dylan Thomas by finding two works of poetry that were alike, of course she offered them a prize for the best poem :)

  4. Dana says:

    Well, Dylan certainly comes to mind as someone who may be better read than heard at times. I would also include early Bruce Springsteen and much of Elvis Costello.

    I think the music here suits the lyrics just fine. I think, perhaps, what Amy meant is that the music is so soothing and melodic that it kind of creates a mood all its own that washes over you and makes you disassociate with the lyrics.

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