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
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