Janis Ian: Celebrating Our Years Together
When she was 12, Janis Ian wrote her first song, “Hair of Spun Gold.” It was published in the folk magazine Broadside, and that led to a performance at a weekly hootenanny at the famed Village Gate, where she met Tom Paxton. Her father had to drive her into New York City because, of course, she was too young to drive. “Janis sat between Len Chandler and me,” Paxton recalled. “We adopted her. She was a little drink of water from New Jersey. We made her sing another song. We loved her. She became a star a year later.”
Now in her fifth decade of writing songs and performing, Janis Ian has been nominated for 10 Grammy nominations in eight categories, most recently in 2016. Her last Grammy, for Best Spoken Word Album, beat out Bill Clinton, Michelle Obama, Rachel Maddow and Ellen DeGeneres. For Ian, whose first single, “Society’s Child,” was written more than 50 years ago and for which she received death threats over its focus on an interracial couple, words are everything. “We artists are the last alchemists, pulling your dreams, your hopes, your deepest desires out of thin air and turning them into something you can hear, play and sing… We don’t sell music. We sell dreams,” she said.
Ian’s seminal album, Between the Lines, and the single from it, “At Seventeen,” became her signature. The song and album received five Grammy nominations, at that time, more than any solo female artist had ever received. Along with “Society’s Child,” this song about a young girl who feels that she is a misfit in high school was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. Both songs gave voice to themes as relevant today as the day they were written.
Ian’s songs have been recorded by artists as diverse as Cher, John Mellencamp, Celine Dion, Hugh Masekela, Nana Mouskouri, Charlie Daniels, Nina Simone and Roberta Flack. She’s sung her own songs in duets with Dolly Parton, Willy Nelson and Mel Tormé. That performance, “Silly Habits,” was a Grammy nominee for Best Jazz Vocal Performance, Duo or Group. After Johnny Cash died, she learned that he kept a well-thumbed copy of her first book of poetry, “Who Really Cares?” in his library. She was the first musical guest on a new show, Saturday Night Live, which also featured George Carlin and she said that very few of the regulars thought it would last for more than a short time.
Ian is a fan of science fiction and has written short stories in the genre. She has co-edited an award-winning book with author Mike Resnick, Stars: Original Stories Based on the Songs of Janis Ian, where 30 science fiction writers used her songs as backdrops for their imaginations. “It’s like jazz,” she said. “It’s the cutting edge. It deals in the possible and the improbable and asks a lot of questions I would ask. It takes no prisoners. My brother and I grew up on it. My father read (us) Poe.”
Ian had a close relationship with both of her parents and she began the Pearl Foundation, named after her mother, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1975. Ian and her brother convinced their mother to follow her dream of going to college and her mother enrolled in Goddard College’s adult education program. After her mother’s death, the siblings began the foundation to raise money for older continuing education students. Ian still runs the Pearl Foundation, which has endowed more than $900,000 in scholarships to returning students.
The esteem in which Ian is held by other artists is exemplified in a quote from another writer: “I played an album a lot in those bad years... the album was by Janis Ian (Between the Lines) and it played and it played and I listened and I could hear the storyteller and the great singer and I could sense pages turning and lives changing and there was fog in the distance. She had fog in her stories - much had been created and much had been shared - but the fog didn’t make it to my shores, although it made it to my heart. It’s a remarkable album…it popped and crackled and skipped, but I kept it dropping and re-playing and it was a marvel.” The writer? Tennessee Williams.
Don’t miss the multiple Grammy-winning folk icon’s last North American tour: “The End of the Line.”