“Just so you know,” folk musician Anaïs Mitchell joked as she tuned her guitar, “I wrote this song ten years ago.”
The forty or so people filling the mid-Manhattan restaurant on a rainy March weeknight laughed knowingly. Mitchell has attracted a loyal following of fans, mostly of a generation that grew up with folk music. Her voice is girlish but cutting. She is best known for her album Hadestown, a folk-opera based on the story of Orpheus and Eurydice set in Depression-era America (and which is a touring theater production), but she has released several solo albums as well.
“Why We Build the Wall,” the decade-old song Mitchell referred to, is part of the Hadestown story. The character Hades, a slick billionaire promising security and prosperity to a desperate band of Americans, builds a wall to keep out the poor. “Why do we build the wall, my children?” he asks. “We build the wall to keep us free!” they reply. “Because we have and they have not, because they want what we have got!”
Mitchell does not keep her politics secret; she told the audience that just a few hours earlier she’d been protesting Donald Trump’s executive orders dismantling environmental protections. Elsewhere she’s acknowledged that while her lyrics have assumed new meaning since Trump’s rise to power, “the wall is not a new image. It’s a powerful archetypal image, and Trump is simply tapping into that…. They hear about a wall and it makes them feel safe and strong. Unfortunately neither Trump nor Hades are un-clever.”
But Mitchell, whose songs dwell on everyday relationships between lovers and among family, more typically addresses politics in the broadest sense: how the decisions that people make can shape the world around them. Critics note that Mitchell’s music manages to be erudite without being pretentious; the ego that one might expect to accompany a “concept album” or an “opera” of any kind is nowhere to be found. Mitchell’s imagery is simple, direct, and tactile, but this heightens rather than detracts from her work’s sophistication. Her vocals are free of affectation, so the attention is on her characters—all rendered humanly, with complex inner lives inevitably influencing their encounters with the outer world.