As the 18th-century writer Jonathan Swift once observed, “When a true genius appears, you can know him by this sign: that all the dunces are in a confederacy against him.” Gender bias aside, that statement rang especially true in the mid-’60s, when the racial tension of the times voiced itself through a 14-year-old folk singer/songwriter with a genius-level IQ. Sung from the perspective of a white girl being condemned for having a black boyfriend, Janis Ian’s song “Society’s Child” earned its precocious young composer numerous death threats. Strangers spit in her food at restaurants, tripped her at concerts and sent her copious amounts of hate mail, sometimes placing razor blades in the envelopes to make her cut her fingers. One especially enterprising dunce (or perhaps a confederacy of them) even burned down an Atlanta radio station for playing “Society’s Child.”
Ian, now 61, recalls the backlash to that song as “Unfortunate. But on the other hand, [it was] a really marvelous lesson in the power of music. You’re touching somebody, and you’re making somebody stop and think.”
Ever the button-pusher, Ian currently maintains a same-sex marriage in, of all places, Nashville. The vocalist, who used to get so much hate mail from the southern states for “Society’s Child” that her manager refrained from booking her in venues within 50 miles of the Mason-Dixon Line, says she hasn’t caught much flak from the locals for her so-called lifestyle choice. “I think, particularly living in the south, people tend to be more tolerant of eccentricity and differences,” she states. “If you’re not in their face, then they’re not going to worry about it, really.”
While the song “Danger Danger” from Ian’s most recent studio album, 2006’s Folk is the New Black, points out that there’s still plenty of room for cultural growth in the U.S. (“We gonna ban Walt Whitman and Jean Cocteau/All the queers will have to go … Ban all the wetbacks, ban all the fags/Wrap it up tight in the American flag”), the singer says she’s feeling good about the country at the moment. “God knows there’s enough lunatics out there,” she notes. “They always seem to shout louder and shout more often. But I think there’s been a real shift, and hopefully that shift will continue.”
Underscoring Ian’s point, “Society’s Child,” the song that inspired death threats in the ’60s, was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2001. Slightly less emblematically—though no less impressively—the audio version of Ian’s autobiography “Society’s Child” won the 2013 Grammy for Best Spoken Word Album, beating out works by Michelle Obama, Bill Clinton, Rachel Maddow and Ellen Degeneres.
As Ian mentions in her autobiography, she’s most in her element when writing sad songs. The proof is in such stingingly honest pieces as “At Seventeen” and “Stars,” the likes of which would make excellent on-hold music for suicide encouragement hotlines. Yet the composer explains that when she expresses her most melancholy moods in song, it’s from a retrospective point of view. “It’s hard to write when you’re sad,” she notes. “You don’t have a lot of energy left over for things.” The singer adds that she’s a generally happy person. “I think my show is pretty happy, outside of the songs, if that makes any sense,” she says with a chuckle.
Ian performs at Kuumbwa Jazz on Sunday, March 31. While older tunes like “At Seventeen” and “Society’s Child” will most definitely be on the set list “because that’s what people are paying for,” the vocalist will also present plenty of new material, including three or four songs from an album yet to be released. “People are welcome to bring old vinyl and stuff like that,” she offers. “I hate to see people disappointed when they realize I’ll sign whatever they bring. I’ll even sign other people’s records if it makes them happy.” Photo: Peter Cunningham
Janis Ian plays at 7 p.m. Sunday, March 31 at Kuumbwa Jazz, 320-2 Cedar St., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $25. For more information, call 423-7970.