Janis Ian: 40 Years Later

It was long ago and far away. The world was younger than today. It was 1966--when taking a stand for civil rights could have serious negative consequences--when 15-year old Janis Ian of New Jersey recorded Society's Child [PDF], a song about an interracial love affair. Atlantic Records, which paid for it to be recorded, ultimately rejected it as too controversial. When released by Verve Forecast -- after twenty-two more rejections -- it was met with widespread hostility. But after Leonard Bernstein featured Ian on a TV special, the song became a hit, then nominated for a Grammy, and Ian became "the youngest pop legend alive."

Fascinating stories in Ian's dramatic 2008 memoir, Society's Child, include Ian and rock legend Jimi Hendrix watching B.B. King perform at a Greenwich Village club in 1968. Mid-show, B.B. is handed a note. He reads it, looks down at the floor, announces that Martin Luther King, Jr., has died. As B.B. pours his grief into his next song, tears stream down every face.

Ian's book blurb contributors include Joan Baez, Kitty Kelley, Orson Scott Card and Noel Paul Stookey. Science fiction author George R.R. Martin describes the memoir as "harrowing and inspiring," a look at a "songwriter whose music helped define our times, even while she herself was battling racists, rejection, abuse, and the Internal Revenue Service."

As our country celebrates the inauguration of its first African American president, two-time Grammy Award winner Ian looks back via e-mail from Nashville.

Book World: Jimi Hendrix called you "that girl who wrote that song, man, you know." What was the social impact of Society's Child?

Ian: Artists are taught to be humble about their impact, especially in folk music. It's so ingrained that I have a hard time even thinking I had any impact other than what a normal hit song would have. I had a vague idea of the song's impact in the '60s, but that was tempered by the hate mail and threats I was receiving. It was only about ten years ago, when I finally put it back in my show because so many people were asking for it, that I understood Society's Child real impact. As best as I can see, it crept into the corners of people's lives--in the suburbs, small towns, all the places where blacks and whites knew their places and stayed in them--and forced conversations, discussions and arguments. In that sense, it changed lives, and I'm very proud to have been a part of that experience!

BW: You've survived all kinds of peaks and valleys in your life that would have done a lot of other people in. What have you learned from the worst times?

Ian: That revenge is a laudable goal, but rarely achieved? The best thing you can learn from the worst times of your life is that it always gets better. It may take a month, a year, a decade, but it will get better if you leave yourself open to it. As my grandmother Fink used to say: "Relax. You have years of suffering ahead of you."

BW: You've been the object of cruelty, personally and professionally. What have you concluded about humanity?

Ian: It seems to be part of the human condition to need someone you can look down on. I still don't get that one.

BW: What kept you from succumbing to bitterness and cynicism?

Ian: As I was turning 40, I began to feel some bitterness. I looked on everything I'd lost, instead of everything I had. I began to complain, to measure what I didn't have against what others had. One day, my partner, Pat (Snyder), said, "You better quit it. You're starting to sound like a whiny chick singer. It's unattractive." That hurt.

Around the same time, I read an interview with Joni Mitchell where all she seemed to do was complain -- she wasn't famous enough, she wasn't rich enough, she didn't have enough recognition. I looked at the photo of her, standing outside her Bel Aire home, and thought, Damn, girl. At least you have a place to live! And I realized that bitterness kills art. From that moment on, I resolved to watch myself for any sign of bitterness, and to root it out like a bad weed.

BW: The late blues icon Odetta, who you cite as a great inspiration, enthusiastically blurbed your book. How were you affected by her recent passing?

Ian: I have to confess that I was more affected by her life than by her passing, as cliched as that sounds. She'd been ill for a long time, and I think she'd made her peace.

BW: You write that a visit with science-fiction author Anne McCaffrey in Ireland led to your attending a Worldcon convention, which led to working with writer Mike Resnick on the publication of a well-received anthology of short stories based on your songs by your favorite science fiction writers. Are you working on any new sci-fi projects?

Ian: Right now I'm not working on anything but trying to figure out how to squeeze in a few creative hours a day, when all I seem to do is business!

The paperback edition of Society's Child is due out in the fall.

-- Mary Ishimoto Morris

By Rachel Hartigan Shea |  January 21, 2009; 9:35 AM ET Mary Morris
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I will start out with a negative first just to get it out of the way. As I'm sure you know Martin Luther King, Jr died in 1968, not 1967.

Now the positive. "Society's Child", the song, affected my life in more ways than one, but at the time it left me sorely sleep deprived. I was 12-13 and living in rural Pennsylvania. My small-town radio station didn't play "Society's Child" - too controversial. So every night I would lay in bed with my transistor radio and wait until 77-WABC out of New York City (which we didn't get until after dark) played the song. I often waited for hours, but once they played the song I could go to sleep.

Posted by: elyrest | January 21, 2009 1:58 PM

Dear Elyrest,

Thank you so much for your correction and comment. I've requested that the correction be made. My deepest apologies.

What you say about how the song affected you moved me deeply.

There are many amazing things about "Society's Child" for me. For example, how could Janis Ian write that at such a young age? How could someone so young be that eloquent and brave? How does that happen?

My own experience with the song was as an Asian American girl, the same age as Janis Ian, struggling with identity issues attending schools that were mostly white.

I happened to see that Leonard Bernstein special and Janis Ian was like this miracle before my eyes expressing things that were vaguely in my mind and heart that I didn't have the ability to express myself. To be honest my feelings about her were equal parts envy and admiration.

Reading her memoir was a great ride back in time and behind the scenes. A lot of questions about her I'd forgotten I'd had were answered. And I discovered an honest, warm, kind, intelligent, sensitive voice that made me happy for her to have survived and triumphed over so much.

Thanks again. I loved your story.

Posted by: marymorris | January 22, 2009 6:11 PM

This piece on Janis Ian's "Society's Child," the marvelously poignant response by "elyrest," and Mary Morris's touching follow-up were just great. I went to the link and printed a copy of the poem so to have it nearby in the future. I had never fully appreciated the song before.

Having said that, I have nothing even in the ballpark to add to the dialogue. I did want to say, though, that it did trigger bittersweet high school memories and how important a radio in your room was for dealing with teenage heartbreak.

I had been aced out of some fantastic girl (by a boy one year younger, to make it worse) and survived it all with artists like Patsy Cline--we're talking '50s here--singing "Crazy" and "I've Loved and Lost Again."

Posted by: lheffelkcrrcom | January 23, 2009 6:31 PM

When I was a freshman in a women's college in 1977, one of the albums that everyone had in their LP collection was Janis Ian's "Between the Lines." I rediscovered Janis Ian on a PBS special that aired in 2005. I awoke from a nap on the couch while she was performing a song she wrote to an unfinished Woody Guthrie lyric called "I Hear You Sing Again." That song was so incredibly powerful, honest and moving the same way that "Society's Child" and "At Seventeen" was all those years ago. I have been a born-again Janis fan ever since. Read the book, it is amazing, and listen to some of her newer CDs and treat yourself to the work of one of the greatest singer-songwriters to grace the American music scene.

Posted by: rbalano1 | January 23, 2009 7:29 PM

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