Tuesday, February 20, 2007

40th anniversary of “society’s child”

released in march 1967, janis ian’s landmark composition “society’s child (baby, i‘ve been thinking),” (which she recorded in 1966 at the age of 15) was largely ignored because its account of an interacial romance forbidden by the narrator's mother and frowned upon by peers and teachers was considered “too hot to handle.”

“society’s child” exploded onto the scene in 1967 when classical composer/conductor leonard bernstein featured janis ian and the song on his cbs tv special, “inside pop: the rock revolution.” (remember that in this pre-cable period--when most americans received only three or four television channels--television shows such as this had infinitely more impact.) the program’s resultant publicity allowed “society’s child” a #14 on the national billboard charts that summer by virtue of its reaching #1 or top 10 status in isolated “markets,” although most radio stations across the u.s. feared the song and refused to play it (either quietly removing it from their play lists or banning the song outright).

reflect on these lyrics written by ian (while waiting for her guidance counselor) and try to imagine the resultant furor that spawned apocryphal tales of disc jockeys beaten or radio stations burned down for playing the song:

Come to my door, baby,
Face is clean and shining black as night.
My mother went to answer you know
That you looked so fine.
Now I could understand your tears and your shame,
She called you “boy” instead of your name.
When she wouldn't let you inside,
When she turned and said“But honey, he's not our kind.”
She saysI can't see you any more, baby,
Can't see you anymore.
Walk me down to school, baby,
Everybody's acting deaf and dumb.
Until they turn and say,
“Why don't you stick to your own kind.”
My teachers all laugh, the smirking stares,
Cutting deep down in our affairs.
Preachers of equality,
Think they believe it, then why won't they just let us be?
They say I can't see you anymore baby,
Can't see you anymore.
One of these days I'm gonna stop my listening
Gonna raise my head up high.
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.
No, I don't want to see you anymore, baby.

amazingly, these painful words shared the airwaves (in those cities in which it was “permitted“) in june 1967 with other such gems as petula clark’s “don‘t sleep in the subway,” the association’s “windy,” the jefferson airplane’s “somebody to love,” procol harum’s “whiter shade of pale,” spanky & our gang’s “sunday will never be the same,” the doors’ “light my fire,” the fifth dimension’s “up up & away,” van morrison’s “brown eyed girl,” nancy sinatra’s “jackson,” the turtles’ “she’d rather be with me,” scott mckenzie’s “san franscisco,” and stevie wonder’s “i was made to love her.” notably this period included the tense days of the “six day war.”

“society’s child” was produced by george “shadow” morton who also produced the shangri-las (of “leader of the pack” fame) and was working with vanilla fudge and janis ian at the same time. artie butler’s intense respective harpsichord and organ intro and ending of “society’s child” never fail to send shivers through those who remember the song and its impact. because the song was recorded onto only eight tracks (an industry advance at the time), butler had to run back and forth between the two instruments during the recording session.

although becoming a hit with verve records (which also recorded ian’s fellow high school of music & art alumna laura nyro at the beginning of her career), “society's child” was originally recorded for atlantic records. the latter company paid for the session but quietly returned the master after they heard the song, saying they could not release it. years later, according to ian, jerry wexler (then president of atlantic) apologized publicly to her for this, supposedly telling ian that, “if any company should have released “society's child,’ it was us.”

rightly recognized by the grammy hall of fame for its timelessness and influence in music history, “society’s child” was inducted into that canon in 2001. (the song garnered a grammy nomination for “best folk performance” in 1966.) some may better remember janis ian for 1970’s “jessie,” (parleyed by roberta flack into a pop standard) and ian’s 1975 gargantuan hit “at seventeen.”


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