Although Janis Ian would find her biggest success in the 1970’s, the New Jersey born folk singer made her first climb to the top in the late 1960’s with the controversial song “Society’s Child” which brought her both admirers, and enemies, in a rocky journey to music stardom.
I first heard the song at played at the Opera House in Toronto prior to a performance by Italian prog-rockers Goblin in 2016. Despite the noise of the growing crowd, the heartbreaking cries of Janis Ian’s mournful narrative put my heart right into my throat.
“She says I can’t see you anymore baby,
I can’t see you anymore…”
Finding the dj who was spinning a retro set live, he gave me the name of the song and artist, and he couldn’t believe I hadn’t heard the song before. Neither could I. “Society Child” became an instant favorite of mine. The next day, back home in Peterborough, I headed down to Bluestreak Records and Tim had a copy of Janis Ian’s debut album with “Society Child” on hand as if it was just waiting for me.
Janis was only thirteen years old when she wrote the heartbreaking ballad about a young white girl in love with a black boy, who succumbs to the pressures of her mother, teachers and classmates who shame her for her desire to be with him. As a narrative, it was powerful during the era of civil rights, and provocative being sung by such a young girl. The result was one of the most cutting and interesting commentary of race during the 60’s.
The song caught the attention of producer Shadow Morton, the man behind the Shangri-Las body of recordings, and he had Janis record it in 1965. However, due to the content of the song Atlantic Records refused to release it. The record would be rerecorded a year later for Verve Records, but they also were reluctant to release it and gave it no promotion. It wasn’t until 1967 when the song caught the attention of Leonard Bernstein who fell in love with the song and used it in the TV special “Inside Pop: The Rock Revolution” that Verve began to promote the record, and a debut self-titled LP was released with a new recording of the song being included.
As a release, “Society’s Child” did well in sales, but failed to reach the top ten on the Billboard charts. A big part of this was due to the fact that the record was banned from a number of radio stations, primarily in the Southern US. Not surprisingly, it did better in Canada where it climbed to the number 13 spot on the charts.
The most ridiculous moment of Janis Ian’s early career would happen in 1967 when she was invited to sing “Society’s Child” on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour (this was the kind of controversial material Dick and Tommy Smothers loved) Seventeen years old at the time, Janis had to be accompanied by a chaperone, and during a break in filming Janis was taking a nap backstage and had her head in the lap of the much older woman who accompanied her. Well, one of the other guests on the show saw this and decided that it was lesbian behavior and spent the rest of the year telling other television producers and show business types that Janis Ian’s immoral sexual perversions should prevent her from being on television. You want to know who that was? Bill fucking Cosby – because he’s just the gatekeeper of human morality.
Janis Ian would go on to much greater success in the 70’s with her hit “At Seventeen,” but it was “Society’s Child” which inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2001.