Janis Ian achieved fame as a singer/songwriter at a young age. She wrote Society’s Child at age 13. Due to its controversial theme of love between a black boy and a white girl many record producers wouldn’t touch it. Radio DJ’s wouldn’t play it. But the song was too important to ignore. Word got out. It’s reputation, and that of its teenage author, grew. The song finally became a big hit when Janis was 16 in 1967.
This past Sunday found us blessed with a warm August evening. Janis Ian opened for Joan Baez at a concert Lindi and I attended. It was a sold-out, outdoor show with no fixed seating. We sat in our lawn chairs in the grass directly in front of the stage. After her first song, Janis talked about becoming famous at such a young age, about losing her fame a few years later, and regaining it in the mid-1970’s. I pulled out the cover from her Stars album and held it on my lap. She saw it and smiled.
She then told a story about Society’s Child. The conservative “right” rejected her because it was a song about interracial love (this was the 1960’s, after all, and not all was love and peace–contrary to what some of us from the Woodstock generation would have you believe). The liberal “left” rejected her because the white girl in the song ended the relationship due to familial and societal pressure. Even other folk singers rejected her because she wasn’t pure folk (she used drums on the song).
She was performing in southern California one night when she was 15 years old. While singing Society’s Child a man in the audience yelled “N***r lover!” She continued to sing. Another yelled out, “Go home, n****r lover!” Janis sang on. More joined in the attack until she broke down and left the stage.
The venue manager found her in her dressing room sobbing. “What are you doing?” he demanded. “Why aren’t you on stage?!”
He obviously hadn’t been inside the auditorium when the men were cursing her. She told him what had happened.
“You don’t walk out in the middle of a show!” he said.
“But they said horrible things. They called me a n****r lover!” she cried.
“I didn’t think the girl who wrote that powerful song would be a coward,” he said.
She returned to the stage and resumed singing. The same audience members started in again. But this time the people around them physically shoved them back down into their seats and told them to shut up. Security came, shined flashlights in their faces for everyone to see, and kicked them out. They skulked away, exposed and cowering.
Janis and the rest of the audience witnessed the power of people working together for what is right. Anonymous in the darkness of the auditorium, where a young, teenage girl performing onstage could not see them, a few men screamed horrible things. Exposed to the light they shrank back to the darkness cloaked only in their cowardice. And Janis continued to sing.
One of these days I’m gonna raise up my glistening wings and fly. But that day will have to wait for a while. Baby I’m only society’s child. When we’re older things may change, but for now this is the way, they must remain. I say I can’t see you anymore baby, Can’t see you anymore.
This is what an artist does, she explained later in the show. They spend their life creating that one painting, or book, or song; that one thing that makes some positive difference.
Janis Ian’s music has made a difference in my life. I have many of her albums (yep, real vinyl, folks) and I’ve been giving them a spin recently and remembering how my thinking was impacted by At Seventeen, Between the Lines, Jesse, Aftertones, I Believe I’m Myself Again, and so many others.
Joan Baez and her band were wonderful. She interacted with the audience, sang well-known songs (I always love hearing Diamonds and Rust live) and some I’d never heard before. She changed up the setlist in response to a request for some “sing-a-long” tunes, and closed her set beautifully. Her band left the stage. She stood alone without her guitar and we all sang Amazing Grace together under the cloudless, star-filled sky.
It must be clear by now that though Joan Baez was the headliner, and I love Joanie , I went to the concert to see Janis Ian. After the show she signed copies of her new autobiographical book, Society’s Child, named after her first hit. She signed CD’s, as well as albums people brought with them, and talked with audience members until everyone was gone.
I was last in line. She saw me and said, “My front row guy!” We talked for about five minutes. She told me she appreciated seeing the album cover right at the begining of her set. I told her how much I loved the show, especially the story about Society’s Child. “True story,” she said.
I handed her my album cover and asked her to sign it. I said, “I brought Stars because of Dance With Me” (a song that gave voice to what I felt about the Viet Nam war, and all war).
“I love that song, too,” she said as she signed the album. “I should work it back into the show.” We shook hands, wished each other well, and Lindi and I walked away.
I encourage you to pick up her book and her new CD. It’s received great reviews. I’m grateful to live in this world, at this particular time, with people like Janis Ian. She makes a difference. She retains her humanity. She’s a giver. The world is a richer place for her walking among us and sharing her gift.