Things May Change: Janis Ian’s ‘Society’s Child’

(originally appeared in Shindig! issue #58)

A listener in 2016 discovering Janis Ian’s ‘67 hit ‘Society’s Child’ might well hear it as the musical equivalent of a fly in amber: a well-preserved relic from a distant time when interracial relationships were shocking or even illegal. Some might argue that racial discrimination has diminished since then; after all, a black man is the president of the United States, and a Muslim son of Pakistani immigrants is the Mayor of London. But the racial conflicts that have erupted in the US and elsewhere over the past five decades – the Watts riots, the Rodney King trial, the shootings that fueled the Black Lives Matter movement – show that the prejudice Ian portrayed in ’67 is still very much with us.

Ian was a 14-year-old high school student when she wrote ‘Society’s Child’. Because of the song’s first-person perspective, and because of her age, many assumed that ‘Society’s Child’ was based on events in her own life. But Ian explains in her autobiography – also called Society’s Child – that the song was inspired by an interracial couple she saw holding hands on a New York City bus. When she noticed other passengers moving away from them, she wondered what might happen later on in that couple’s relationship. She composed much of the song while seated in a chair outside the office of a sympathetic high school counselor, who had told the school administrators that Ian needed “heavy counseling”. That got her out of attending classes so she could write.

The song, initially titled ‘Baby, I’ve Been Thinking’, shows remarkable musical and lyrical proficiency for such a young author – although, Ian laughingly tells Shindig!, “I took out one verse because it was so bad”. And, as some commentators have noted, it’s also notable for being a protest song that ends up not being a protest. The song starts with its protagonist sadly telling her black boyfriend “I can’t see you any more, baby” because her mother says he is “not our kind”.  But by the end of the song she has internalized the racist attitudes around her, and changes her declaration to “I won’t see you any more, baby”. Ian structured the song’s ending that way because, as she said in her autobiography, “I didn’t want the breakup for their relationship to be just society’s fault. I wanted the girl to take some responsibility for it, too.”

Ian submitted the sheet music for ‘Baby, I’ve Been Thinking’ to Broadside, an independent magazine which had published two of her earlier works and was essential reading for many activists and musicians. Broadside regularly included contributions by such folk luminaries as Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton and Pete Seeger, and after it published ‘Baby, I’ve Been Thinking’ in its February ’65 issue, Ian was offered a gig at the legendary Gaslight Café. Connections made there got Ian an audition at the office of producer George ‘Shadow’ Morton. Ian performed a song while Morton hid his face behind a newspaper; angered at his apparent inattention, she grabbed a cigarette lighter, set the newspaper on fire, and left the office. Morton ran after her, apologized profusely, and asked her to come back in – and one of the songs she then played was ‘Baby, I’ve Been Thinking’. Morton told her that he wanted to record the song, and also declared, “‘Society’s Child’ – that’s a song title. We change the name.”

The recording session for ‘Society’s Child’ took place only a week after the meeting with Morton, just after Ian’s 15th birthday. It was the first time that she had been in a studio. Ian readily admits that she was “clueless” about the reputations and experience of the top-flight musicians Morton had hired, but “if you were talented, that trumped everything else, and they treated me as a talented musician”.

After a few takes, bass player George Duvivier saw that Ian was distressed at how the song sounded, and got her to play the song again by herself while the musicians listened to it closely. They then reworked the arrangement, and the next take was the take that became the record. Keyboard player Artie Butler played both harpischord and organ on the song, and had to run back and forth between the two instruments, leaping over the cables on the studio floor. The session took long enough that ‘Society’s Child’ ended up costing almost $6,000 to make, while the recording of all of the rest of Ian’s debut album cost $7,000.  Nevertheless, Morton later told interviewer Lenny Kaye that the singles and albums he did with Ian were his favourites out of all the records he ever made.  Ian recalls, “It was astonishing how it all came together. It was meant to be that way. It was meant to happen.”

‘Society’s Child’ was released as a single in August ’65. Within the US music industry, the reaction to it was that it was a great song but would never be successful because of its controversial subject matter. New York City DJs got behind the record and played it regularly, and it was a favourite in the new freeform format of FM radio – but in many parts of the US, radio stations either refused to add it to their playlists or outright banned it. A radio station in Atlanta, Georgia, that did play the record was firebombed. Ian received hate mail and was spat on in the streets.

‘Society’s Child’ got national exposure when famed composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein included Ian and the song in his ’67 TV documentary Inside Pop: The Rock Revolution. He praised ‘Society’s Child’ as “marvellous – astonishing key changes, and even tempo changes; ambiguous cadences, unequal phrase lengths – the works!” But Ian encountered another unexpected controversy after appearing on the Smothers Brothers’ TV show that same year. Comedian Bill Cosby saw her backstage at that show, exhausted from her touring schedule and asleep in the lap of her female chaperone, and decided to warn other shows that Ian wasn’t “suitable family entertainment” and was probably a lesbian; her manager told her that she had been “blackballed” from television. Ian wryly observed in her autobiography, “I hadn’t even slept with a boy yet, let alone a girl.”

Despite the turmoil, ‘Society’s Child’ reached #14 in the US charts, and was a chart single in some regions of the US for as long as eight months. In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, the song was covered by a number of other artists, most notably by Vanilla Fudge and Hugh Masekela in ’67, Spooky Tooth in ’68, UK singer Linda Clarke in ‘68, and Australian pop star Judy Stone in ‘69. Ian tactfully declines to divulge which cover version of ‘Society’s Child’ is her favourite, but says that she really enjoys hearing other artists “take a right angle to my own delivery and make the song into something of their own.”.

Ian retired from the music business in her late teens – tired of the pressure to churn out product and perform, tired of being shunned or patronized because of her age and her success, and tired of fighting to make the music she wanted to make. She returned in the mid-70s with the hits ‘Stars’, ‘Jesse’ and ‘At Seventeen’. For a while she stopped performing the song in concert because “I needed to disassociate myself from it”, but she added the song back into her set in the late 1980s or early 1990s when she started getting requests for it from Vietnam vets. “When I asked them why, they said that the Armed Forces radio played the snot out of it, and for many of them it also was a calling card that represented their relationships with Vietnamese women. You just don’t know where songs will go, or where they will end up, but it’s fascinating to find out what they do.”

Asked how she contextualizes ‘Society’s Child’ for listeners too young to have experienced the racial divides that inspired the song, Ian explains that on stage she tells the story, recounted in her autobiography, of fleeing a concert hall in tears after being heckled by the audience as a “n****r lover”. “That word still has resonance, they get that. And unfortunately with the race-baiting that’s going on now, they’re aware enough of what it’s about.” In 2002, ‘Society’s Child’ was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, which recognizes “recordings of lasting qualitative or historical significance”.

Ian has developed an entrepreneurial and multi-faceted career as record company owner, performer, songwriter, workshop facilitator, audiobook narrator, and author; she won the Grammy for Best Spoken Word Album in 2013 for narrating the audiobook of her autobiography. And now, 50 years after its creation, she characterizes ‘Society’s Child’ as “hit[ting] the universal. It transcends borders, gender, race, nationality. It applies across the board, and it’s still so relevant.”

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