“Speaking Freely” show recorded June 19, 2000, in New York.
Note: Contains material not included in the broadcast program.
Ken Paulson: Welcome to “Speaking Freely,” a weekly conversation about the First Amendment, the arts and American culture. I’m Ken Paulson, the executive director of the First Amendment Center. Janis Ian has been writing and recording thought-provoking music for more than 30 years. From “Society’s Child” to her current album, God and the FBI, she’s carved out a career very much on her own terms. We’re delighted to have her join us today. Welcome, Janis.
Janis Ian: Thanks, Ken. Nice to be here.
Paulson: It’s terrific to have you here. I’ve already confessed that I’m a fan. I’ll try to ask the difficult and challenging questions, nonetheless. I first became aware of your music, of course, with “Society’s Child,” and I think that’s probably the first time most Americans heard your music.
Ian: That’s the first time I made music, so…
Paulson: You were 14 years old when you wrote that?
Ian: I was 14 when I wrote it and cut it and 15 when it became a hit.
Paulson: Now, that was a groundbreaking record. For the first time, it talked about an interracial romance.
Ian: Black boy meets white girl. Nobody likes it.
Paulson: And I would love to know what went on inside that record company when you were talking about your wonderful new album. You’re trying to break in, a new artist. By today’s standard, you never say, “Let’s cut the most controversial song and put that out as a single.”
Ian: First of all, in those days, you cut the single first. We didn’t even cut the album until the single had been out for six months or five months, so you went with what you had. “Society’s Child” was cut originally for Atlantic Records under a production deal that the producer, Shadow, had, and when Atlantic got the master, they gave it to us, said they couldn’t put it out, and Shadow and his people started trying to find a record company. We went through 22 companies in the United States, all of whom passed, and then Verve Folkways came along. They were starting a new label. I honestly think they wanted it as a tax loss, but they took the record and put it out, and I think they released it that May or June, and it got a lot of play in New York. FM radio was just really starting. Murray “the K” was running a big FM station here that was completely commercial-free. They played it every two hours. And it got little areas like Flint, Michigan, or Philadelphia, but it didn’t get any kind of national support because of the subject matter. There was an industry magazine called The Gavin Chart with Bill Gavin, who would not meet an artist because he felt it would taint him, said that “This song was an out-of-the-box hit. Too bad it would never see the light of day.”
Paulson: I want to be clear. You said Atlantic had first rights to it?
Ian: Atlantic had first rights. They paid for it. And it was a very expensive record by those days’ standards. It took six hours to record.
Paulson: And they couldn’t put it out because —
Ian: They wouldn’t put it out. And I actually — I give them huge credit, because years later, Jerry Wexler, who was head of Atlantic, came to me at a Grammy Awards, in a very public arena, and apologized loudly.
Paulson: I mean, it’s shocking to hear because Atlantic has a great tradition of R&B, and, in fact, a lot of white performers recorded R&B for Atlantic and Atco to good success, and apparently, they learned their lesson from their experience with your record. But … so who owns the rights to “Society’s Child” now?
Ian: MGM Polydor.
Paulson: So it’s still out there worldwide.
Ian: As far as I know, yeah. They issued a package two years ago called “Society’s Child” that has it on it: [Sings] “You come to my door, baby/ Face is clean and shining black as night/ Mama went to answer/ You know that you looked so fine/ Now, I could understand the tears and the 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 said I can’t see you anymore/ Baby, can’t see you anymore/ You walk me down to school, baby/ Everybody acting deaf and blind/ Until they turn and say/ “Why don’t you just stick to your own kind?”/ And the teachers all laugh/ Their 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.
Paulson: You ended up with a huge hit —
Ian: A monster hit.
Paulson: In large part because of the power of television.
Ian: Yeah, those were the days when there were only seven channels, so Leonard Bernstein heard about the song and featured it for 15 minutes — and me, incidentally to that — on a show called “Inside the Pop Revolution,” I think. And it was on Sunday night prime time, so all of a sudden, we were legitimate, and he made a big fuss over the fact that in America, you couldn’t get a record like this played because of the censorship. And next morning, KRLA radio in L.A., which was the big West Coast station, took out a full-page ad apologizing. It was pretty unprecedented. I didn’t really understand it, you know. I was 15; I just thought, “Oh, this is cool.” It began to snowball, and it was on the charts for a year after that.
Paulson: And you could not have had a better mentor or somebody to speak up for you.
Paulson: It reminds me of when Ed Sullivan vouched for Elvis and said, “He’s really a fine boy.”
Ian: Right. “He’s a nice boy.”
Paulson: And then you go out at 15 and tour with this record?
Ian: Then I tour, and it was real schizophrenic, you know? On the one hand, I was getting to work with people like Joplin and Hendrix and The Stones and hang out backstage with them and run into them at airports or play after-hours in The Village, and on the other hand, a lot of the time, groups of 10 and 20 people would buy tickets to my concerts and sit together, and when I hit “Society’s Child,” they would start screaming, “Kill the nigger-loving bitch” or “nigger lover” and chanting that and try and drive me off the stage. So it was a very uncomfortable time for me, in a lot of ways, a time that holds great memories and absolutely horrendous memories.
Paulson: How does it affect you when you’re that age and people are reacting that strongly to your work?
Ian: Very badly. I think my assumption became that I was going to die onstage. I assumed that sooner or later, one of these people would get through the police at the front of the stage or would bring a shotgun or something.
Paulson: It’s interesting. I’ve read that of other performers of the era. Phil Ochs was always afraid he was going to be murdered. Were there times when you thought, “You know, I really ought to record safer music”?
Ian: Well, it’s a problem, because I think — I don’t know how much choice an artist who only records their own songs has in what they write. You know, you can try and tilt it toward that. But every time I’ve tried, the results have been dismal. You know, I write what I write. And I think part of it is just, if you have a respect for your talent and for the gift that you’ve been given, then a lot of the time, it’s the gift leading you.
Paulson: What is it that went into the writing of “Society’s Child”? I mean, how does that come to you when you’re 14?
Ian: If I knew, I would bottle it. I don’t know. I was sitting on a bus on my way home from school, and I was just thinking about writing a song. I’d been writing songs for about two years. And it started to come. Took a couple of months to write it. And I remember when we did the recording session, Shadow took me outside and said that he wasn’t telling me what to do, but if I would change one word — if I would change the word “black” — he could guarantee me a No. 1 record. And another person who was with us looked at me and said, “You start whoring now, you’ll whore forever.” And I thought, “Well, if this is my entire future for the rest of my life, I may as well start off right. I can always sell my soul later.”
Paulson: Without the word “black,” would it not have been understood to be interracial?
Ian: Wouldn’t have been controversial. I could’ve made him a boy from the wrong side of the tracks like everybody else was doing, you know, and left it open: He was a poor boy; she was a rich girl.
Paulson: And you have a controversial record on day one, and now you have this new album called God and the FBI.
Ian: And only 16 records between.
Paulson: And we do want to explore — you’ve had this cyclical experience as an artist, where you’ll have extraordinary success and then a period where you may not record for a while. You put out several albums in the wake of “Society’s Child,” then took a break. And then came back with Columbia, CBS, and “At Seventeen” hit for you.
Ian: I had 10 great years there. I loved working there.
Paulson: Are there just periods where you say, “It’s time to take a couple years off”?
Ian: I think for me, the whole career is so writing-driven and I’m so writing-driven that when it feels like the writing is going downhill, I usually figure it’s a good time to stop for a while and regroup, learn to be a better writer, especially when I was younger. I stopped when I was 17. But people forget that since I’d started at 14, in those three years, I was probably on the road 300, 250 days a year and making an album every nine months and writing an album every nine months. So by the time I was 17, I was pretty tired. And I really didn’t know if I was ever gonna be able to call myself a songwriter. I felt like I had lucked into a lot of what I had written and had been coasting on talent. So I stopped from when I was 17 to 21, and then I wrote “Jesse” and “Stars” and thought, “Maybe I’m a songwriter.” And then I went to Columbia and stayed there for 10 years, and not just “At Seventeen,” but then had a No. 1 record that stayed No. 1 for a year in Japan and then a No. 1 record all over Europe, so I was on the road constantly for 10 years with the same pressures and felt like my writing was going downhill, so in ’81, I decided to stop for what I thought would be two or three years and studied with Stella Adler and Jose Quintero and did some really bad ballet and thought that I would learn some other forms. You know, the problem with being a musician in this day and age, outside of that everybody tells you how wonderful you are, is that you become monochromatic. You only know that one thing. And it makes for a very dull life, ultimately. [Sings] “Borrowed pens on dotted lines sign the past away/ This is yours and that is mine so the papers say/ How can you move so quickly?/ How can you heal so fast?/ And what will I do with my mornings?/ And what will I do with my nights?/ Tell me what you see in her that used to be in me/ Why is it the simple truths are hardest to believe?/ How can I start all over knowing we’ll just be friends?/ And what will I do with my mornings?/ And what will I do with my nights?/ You want answers that I can’t give/ You want words I don’t know/ Ask me when I’m through getting over you/ Mmm/ After this day is over, how will my dreams go on?/ And what will I do with my mornings?/ Tell me, what will I do with my nights?/ You want answers that I can’t give/ You want words I don’t know/ Ask me when I’m through getting over you/ Ask me when I’m through getting over you.”
Paulson: And then you reemerge in 1992 with “Breaking Silence.”
Paulson: An album with different themes. And that had to be — was it a joyous or difficult album to put together after that breakaway? And then dealing with some very tough themes in the record.
Ian: Well, the themes weren’t a problem. You know, I think once a song is written, the problem goes away. Then it just becomes: “How do you sing this so the audience will understand it?” “Breaking Silence” was hard because it had been 10 or 12 years since I’d really been visible, and that’s two generations of listeners. And the entire music industry had changed a lot, and the audience had changed a lot. Just the technology alone had changed. So that was — it was interesting, you know. But for me, I was back in the studio, and that’s — smell of tape, smell of tape machines, you know, that’s home.
Paulson: Throughout the ’90s, you had several albums very well received. The new album’s getting terrific reviews.
Ian: Yeah, I haven’t seen a bad review. It’s a little scary. The — worrisome when you hit the age when people are being polite to you, you know?
Paulson: Your career has been in many ways album-driven, performance-driven, and then two extraordinary, huge records: “Society’s Child” we talked about and then “At Seventeen.” And I think people who, in the U.S., have had two big hits, you know, very few of them can say — and not only did they sell a lot of records, these touched people’s lives. I mean, there have to be people who related to “At Seventeen” far more than they did by anything by, uh…
Ian: The Archies.
Paulson: Yeah, I was trying to figure out who to attack there. And “At Seventeen” had that kind of resonance for people.
Ian: Still does. It amazes me how many kids — you know, 15-, 16-, 18-year-olds — come to my shows because they’ve heard that record on the radio or because they dug it out of their parents’ closet. [Sings] “I learned the truth at seventeen/ That love was meant for beauty queens/ And high school girls with clear-skinned smiles/ Who married young and then retired/ The valentines I never knew/ The Friday night charades of youth/ Were spent on one more beautiful/ At seventeen I learned the truth/ And those of us with ravaged faces/ Lacking in the social graces/ Desperately remained at home, inventing lovers on the phone/ Who called to say, ‘Come dance with me’/ And murmured vague obscenities/ It isn’t all it seems at seventeen/ A brown-eyed girl in hand-me-downs/ Whose name I never could pronounce/ Said, ‘Pity please the ones who serve/ ‘Cause they only get what they deserve’/ And the rich-relationed hometown queen/ Marries into what she needs with a guarantee of company/ And haven for the elderly/ So remember, those who win the game/ Lose the love they sought to gain/ In debentures of quality and dubious integrity/ Their small-town eyes will gape at you/ In dull surprise when payment due/ Exceeds accounts received at seventeen/ To those of us who knew the pain/ Of valentines that never came/ And those whose names were never called/ When choosing sides for basketball/ It was long ago and far away/ The world was younger than today/ When dreams were all they gave for free/ To ugly duckling girls like me/ We all play the game, and when we dare/ We cheat ourselves at solitaire/ Inventing lovers on the phone/ Repenting other lives unknown/ That call and say, ‘Come on, dance with me’/ And murmur vague obscenities at ugly girls like me/ At seventeen.” It’s a piece of luck to write a magic song. It really is. You know, I’m not saying that I don’t work hard, but it’s luck when you manage to tune in to the zeitgeist and write something that universal.
Paulson: And did you walk out of the studio that day saying, “Got it. It’s another ‘Society’s Child’”?
Ian: When I finished “Seventeen,” it was the only time in my life I’ve ever called a manager and said, “I’ve just written a hit.”
Ian: Yeah. But when I walked out of the studio that day, I remember I was just exhausted.
Paulson: Is there a trap, then, as a performer to write “A,” another hit and “B,” another song that sort of touches people in the same way? Which is tougher?
Ian: Well, you’re always striving for the universal, you know, because the universal is what makes it interesting. I think there’s two types of performers nowadays. There’s people who want to be famous and stay famous, like the Whitney Houstons, and there’s people who want to change people’s lives. There’s a great Rainer Maria Rilke quote. He said, “I don’t want to be a poet. I want to change your life.” And I read that when I was 13, and I decided that was what I wanted to do. So for me, it’s a joy to have written something like a “Seventeen” where people are constantly telling me that I was their friend when they were friendless. That’s an amazing thing to hear. It’s an amazing privilege, as clichéd as it sounds.
Paulson: You are now based in Nashville.
Ian: I am.
Paulson: There’s a cliché impression of Nashville, but it is not cowboy boots and cowboy hats.
Ian: Well, you know, we just don’t wear shoes there.
Paulson: The First Amendment Center has a home in Nashville as well, and I’ve seen Janis perform at The Bluebird Café, and it’s a thriving folk and country and rock community.
Ian: A fair amount of jazz, too.
Paulson: Absolutely. And what does that do for you as a songwriter to be in a place where there are other songwriters?
Ian: I’m going to tell you a quick Nashville story. When I moved to Nashville in ’88 or ’87, I walked in with all the preconceptions a Northerner has about the South. You know, a bunch of hillbillies with no teeth. And the second day I was there a songwriter named Russell Smith asked me did I want to go to lunch. As we’re driving down the street, I saw a Klansman in full Klan drag standing on the corner holding out a paper bag soliciting contributions. And Russell made a beeline for him. And I thought, “I’ve been in town a day, and I’m about to blow any chance I have of living here quietly.” But I can’t sit in the car and watch him give this man money. And it was just like having a noose around my neck that was being pulled tighter and tighter. And I watched, and Russell motions the guy over, rolls down his window. The Klansman comes up, big grin on his face, holds out the bag. Russell reaches over to his ashtray and dumps the contents in the bag. And Russell Smith, much as I love him, he’s a stone redneck. I mean, you don’t get a redder neck than that. And I looked at him, and I thought, “Preconceptions out the window. Nothing here is what it appears to be.”
Paulson: You have had some co-writers in Nashville. Have you done —
Ian: I’ve been lucky.
Paulson: Deana Carter helped you with “Memphis”?
Ian: Deana Carter had the best album title ever. Her album was called “Did I Shave My Legs for This?” I love Deana. We wrote “Memphis.” I came back from Memphis from seeing Bette Midler there, and it was really — to the way that I saw it, the city was dying and now going under a rebirth. So I started it, and I didn’t feel qualified to finish it, so I asked Deana, who I’d never written with before, if she wanted to come in, and boy, she blew me away. She’s a great writer.
Paulson: You are by no means part of the Music Row establishment.
Ian: I couldn’t be if I wanted to. Them doors close.
Paulson: And for viewers who aren’t familiar with it, there are people actually who’ll go at 9 o’clock in the morning into a cubicle and write till 5 o’clock with other people.
Ian: I’ve done it.
Paulson: On a regular basis.
Ian: But that’s really good training, though, you know. That’s Brill Building training. It’s great to be able to know that you can start at 9 o’clock, and by 5 o’clock, you’ll have a song done, and it’ll be a good song.
Paulson: I think the difference is, those folks say, “What can we sell to Faith? What can we sell to Garth?”
Ian: I wish I could do that.
Paulson: Is that something you’ve tried to do?
Ian: Sure, I’d be a fool not to try it, but it just doesn’t work for me.
Paulson: Your music has to be more personal?
Ian: No, I just think I don’t have that talent. You know, that’s a real talent to be like a Diane Warren or to be like a Gary Burr and have your finger on the pulse of the charts and radio. I just don’t have that talent. [Sings] “Jimmy sits in his room till darkness/ Then he steps on the street/ And she watches and waits at the window/ Wondering who he’ll meet/ It’s a wasteland of TV dinners/ It’s a highway in Hades/ And there’s nothing but time on the table/ Clocking the same old beat/ Jolene steps in like the life of the party/ High-class heels, polka-dot sleeves/ Wears her hair like a girl in a hurry/ Walking and talking and rocking/ To the beat of the street/ Jolene/ There’s a crowd at the park on the corner/ Jimmy rushes to see/ On the ground there’s a lady in labor/ Jimmy forgets how to breathe/ And it’s coming too fast for a doctor/ And the traffic’s obscene/ And the people are panicked and shouting/ “Somebody do something!”/ Jolene struts in like the life of the party/ Kicks her heels off, rolls up her sleeves/ Parts that crowd like a girl in a hurry/ Walking and talking and rocking/ To the beat of the street/ Jolene/ And she’s smiling, crying/ Doctoring as neat as you please/ People are laughing, clapping/ She gets up off her knees, rolling down her sleeves/ Holding up the kid so everybody can see/ Jimmy offers his arm in the silence/ And the night comes alive/ Then he drowns in her smile as the sirens finally arrive/ ‘There are forms to be filled’ say the medics/ As they canvass the crowd/ It was dangerous, foolish, and reckless/ This kind of thing shouldn’t be allowed/ Jolene struts out like the life of the party/ High-class heels, polka-dot sleeves/ Hurrying on; it’s the end of the story/ Walking and talking and rocking/ To the beat of the street/ Jolene/ Jolene, Jolene/ Jolene.”
Paulson: The new album you have, Willie Nelson has a cameo. You’ve got — Not a cameo. He sings lead.
Ian: He sings lead on a song.
Paulson: You pointed out in the press material that that may or may not be what you had in mind when you invited him.
Ian: He sings great.
Paulson: And then you’ve got Chet Atkins on the —
Ian: Chet’s been very good to me.
Paulson: And how did you get to know Chet Atkins?
Ian: Somebody introduced us when I first went to Nashville, and first thing he did was say, “Love your work. Play me something pretty.” Hands me a guitar. I thought, “Oh, I’m gonna die.” Chet’s a surprising person, you know, outside of being just a legend and a phenomenal guitarist who makes it all look so easy. There was a big flap in the press when “Breaking Silence” came out, and all of a sudden, I came out in the press as a gay person. Now, I was a little concerned about repercussions in Nashville, and I found out a few years ago that Chet had called a lot of his old buddies on Music Row and basically said, “She’s mine. Don’t mess with her.”
Paulson: That’s great.
Ian: So, he opened a lot of doors for me. He also made sure that they stayed open.
Paulson: If Chet is your friend, you’re made in Nashville.
Ian: You’re his, you know. He’s a good man.
Paulson: Let’s talk about the new album, God and the FBI.
Ian: I wanted to call it “The Artist Formerly Known as Princess,” but they wouldn’t let me.
Paulson: Actually the “Prince” is actually back to using his name. There might be litigation. I — the striking opening song, “God and the FBI”, the title song which tells the true story about you being under surveillance as a child — your family being under surveillance. All true?
Ian: The excitement of the ’50s. Absolutely. The album cover and the inside are all the actual files and quotes from the files, and the song is true — everything, pretty much, yeah.
Paulson: So how did your family come to the attention of the FBI?
Ian: Oh, it was really exciting. There was a lot of anarchy. My dad was a chicken farmer, and he went to a meeting about the price of eggs in New Jersey, and they picked him up on his way home.
Paulson: Really? And then they monitored him for years after that.
Ian: They monitored him and then my mom, who made the mistake of going to the Civil Rights Congress meeting, and then me, who made the mistake of being born into that family, until I was 17.
Paulson: So how does it feel to be the only kid on the playground with a guy in a suit standing over there?
Ian: Well, you know, you could always spot them. They always wore suits, even at the height of summer, and they always wore really shiny shoes, so we always knew who they were. We made terrible fun of them. We would laugh at them. Sometimes they were nice, you know. Sometimes they’d kind of step out and take your picture where you could see them. I think it provokes a real dichotomy in a child because on the one hand, I was raised to be a second-generation American. I was raised with my grandparents hammering at me that: “In Russia, you wouldn’t have had this chance. In Russia, you couldn’t have had piano lessons. In Russia, you wouldn’t have gone to school. So do well and do better, because this is America.” You know, we’d moved here for that opportunity, to be treated like human beings. And on the other hand, you’re told, “Well, don’t mention that this person came to the house this week. Don’t say anything at school about the National Guardian, because Daddy might lose his job.” And then school is telling you, “There’s communists under the bed, you know. If you think your parents are communists, turn them in.” So it’s very schizophrenic.
Paulson: And your father paid a price for some of his political beliefs.
Ian: My father paid a very heavy price, yes. My father — my father came from people who had nothing. And he joined the Army and then went to college on the G.I. Bill at night for seven years and became a teacher. And the goal of a teacher is to get tenure, which they review every two years, or did then. And he never could get tenure, so we moved every second year. And he felt like a failure. Till the day he died, he thought that he was doing something wrong. When I got the files and we read through them, we discovered that every second year, the FBI would show up at the school and ask the principal whether he’d been seen consorting with known communists. Did he have a drinking problem? Did he bring subversive literature to school? And of course, after that, no one was going to give him a contract.
Paulson: In some of your early files, there’s a reference to you being almost too young to be dangerous.
Ian: Very irritating to read.
Paulson: When did you get it into your head that “I need to see those files”? And how did that fight take place to get access to that material?
Ian: My mom had M.S., and so she was wheelchair-bound for the last 10 years of her life or so. And we were sitting around one day talking about that and talking about the limitations it put on her freedom, and she said, by the way, speaking of limitations on freedom, she’d sure like to know what was in her FBI files. And I blithely said, “Oh, I’ll get them,” because I had just read about the Freedom of Information Act and how Congress said that they have to give you your government files. I thought I’d send away, and I’d get them within a few months. And instead, six months later, I got a letter telling me they were very backed up. So I wrote to them again, and then, a year later, I got a letter telling me, “Did I still want them?” And I wrote them again. And this continued for nine years, as my mom declined, and I threatened to sue them. I threatened to hire lawyers. I hired lawyers. I wrote to them and said, “It appalls me that you can find a president’s file in a day for a press person, but you can’t find my family’s files in eight years.” And finally, in the ninth year, I was mentioning it to a friend of mine in government who called a friend of a friend who was in the State Department and got them a couple of weeks later.
Paulson: What’s remarkable about all this is you — I’ve only seen a little bit from the press packets, but it’s not like there was anything perceived to be dangerous. It’s all pretty innocuous.
Ian: It was a total waste of resources and tax dollars.
Paulson: Do you think they didn’t want to turn it over because they didn’t find a smoking gun?
Ian: No, I think — you know, the feds are a bureaucracy like any bureaucracy, and some guy goes to work every morning at 8 o’clock and has to justify sitting there, drawing a government salary for nine hours, so here’s a black pen, here’s some files. Let me cross out some stuff and think about it. I think a lot of those people are still protecting people who they knew. You know, it’s a lot of old guard. And I think there’s a lot of stuff that isn’t in the file packages. You know, who knows what they’ve got. What I find appalling about it is that Congress could pass a law that says that the information is supposed to be accessible, and yet, the government can dither around for nine years, while my mom dies, while my dad dies, and refuse to hand them over and that there’s no censure for that. I find that appalling. [Sings] “We were marching from Montgomery, Alabama, ’65/ Freedom riders, Jim Crow heroes/ Come to keep the faith alive/ We were picking Southern cotton/ Registration for the vote/ We were one then; we were young then/ When black and white still spoke/ Now it’s all gone to pieces/ God alone knows why/ Just a story they call history/ Written down in black and white/ And we set aside our anger, and we set aside our fears/ And we built a common future on the bedrock of our tears/ And we marched for the children/ And the millions without hope/ We agreed to believe/ When black and white still spoke/ Now it’s all gone to pieces/ God alone knows why/ Just a story they call history/ Written down in black and white/ Nothing’s sadder than the man who thinks he’s free/ When he is chained to the prison of his hatred/ And a dream gone up in flames/ ‘Colored only’ at the fountains, congregations, soda shops/ ‘Colored only’ in the bathrooms and the cemetery lots/ And if Jesus was a black man or as white as Sambo’s grin/ Well, it’s his words that we remember/ Not the color of his skin/ But it’s all gone to pieces/ God alone knows why/ Just a story they call history/ Written down in black and white/ Written down in black and white/ Written down in black and white.” So it came time to cut this album, and I had a song called “Memphis” that I had written with Deana Carter. And I wanted Willie Nelson to sing on it, which was a little complicated because I didn’t know Willie Nelson. So I wrote him a fan letter, and I said, “Dear Mr. Nelson, my name is Janis Ian. You probably don’t know me, ’cause I’m not a country singer, but I have this little song, and I thought maybe you would consider singing harmony on it.” And then I forget about it, ’cause the chance of Willie Nelson answering his fan mail is pretty remote. Months later I’m in the studio, and the engineer calls for me and says, “Phone call for you. It’s Willie Nelson.” I say, “Yeah, right, I’m the queen of England. Thank you very much. Hang up.” So he hangs up. Phone rings again a couple of minutes later. Engineer says, “It’s Willie Nelson for you, and he sounds a little annoyed.” So I get on the phone, and it is Willie Nelson, and he says he loves my work. He loves my song. He’d like to sing on it. And I go, “That’s great; I was hoping you would sing harmony.” And he said no, he’d like to sing lead. So I said all right. So I flew down to Texas. And I was very nervous the night before, ’cause I get really nervous when I’m meeting somebody that I admire, and I was rehearsing in front of the mirror, and I was saying, “Don’t sound like a gurm when you talk to him. Just put out your hand to shake his and say, ‘How do you do, Mr. Nelson?’ Thank you for doing this.” And then be still. The next morning, I got to the studio a couple hours early, had several cups of coffee, which didn’t help me, and Willie comes in at noon, and he’s wearing little blue jeans and a little white T-shirt. He’s wearing his little red headband. And I walk up to him. I put my arm out to shake his hand. The first words out of my mouth are, “Wow, you look just like your album covers.” And I felt like a total and complete idiot. So he asks me did I want to go behind the studio and sit around and talk and kind of calm down a little bit. And I said, yeah, you know, me and Willie, you know, he’s my best friend, Willie. Willie and I were like this. And I thought we’d talk about the music business and touring and the IRS, and other things that we had in common. We sit down. He reaches in his pocket, and he pulls out the biggest joint I’ve seen in my entire life. This is a joint the size of Manhattan. And he asks me do I want some. And I’m just about to explain that I did so much of that in my misspent youth that basically I carry enough residue in me to have a flashback at will even now, and I think to myself, “Wait a minute. Hello. It’s Willie Nelson offering you a joint. This is Willie Nelson.” And I think, “I’m gonna look like an idiot if I say no, but I can’t say yes.” So we did the vocal. I was extremely relaxed for it, had a very good time. And he unfortunately is not here today, but I get to sing his part because of that. [Sings] “We were standing by the river, staring into town/ All the world was on his shoulders/ The tears were raining down/ All along the Southern skyline/ City lights began to bloom/ He said, ‘if you only knew her the way that I do, sir/ You would be crying too.’/ If you could see Memphis the way that I do/ She would look different to you/ Queen of the Delta, tip your tiara/ Memphis, the belle of the blues/ The streets were filled with cotton/ And music filled the air/ And all the paddleboats came rolling/ From east of everywhere/ Now the streets are filled with silence/ And songs no one can hear/ But her memory lingers/ And it slips through my fingers/ Into this river of tears/ If you could see Memphis the way that I do/ She would look different to you/ Queen of the Delta, tip your tiara/ Memphis, the belle of the blues/ Memphis, the belle of the blues.”
Paulson: We talk a bit about music and censorship. At 15, you were a poster child for the concept. Radio stations that wouldn’t play it.
Ian: Pictures of little Janis looking waiflike. “Please play my record.”
Paulson: What is the current state of censorship? What kind of censorship is there out there today?
Ian: In this country?
Paulson: Mm-hmm. Is it commercial in nature?
Ian: I think one of the things that’s happened in music in the last 30 years is that it’s much more subtle. It would be very hard to say that someone was, for instance, censoring white artists because black artists are more popular right now or that record companies don’t hire older artists because younger artists are more popular. It’s very difficult to prove any of those things, you know? So I don’t think we have censorship per se. It’s very hard to shock people anymore, as well. I think what we have in radio, in large part, is a search for the lowest common denominator. And once you put radio or record companies — any kind of corporation — in search of the lowest common denominator, they’re going to look for the most malleable, saleable common denominator that’ll buy what they advertise. It’s down to dollars now, I think.
Paulson: Where were you on the labeling of CDs?
Ian: Well, if CDs were labeled, “Society’s Child” would never have been played, so I come down very much against it. You know, it irritates me when I hear people like — one of the people who worked on my new album was complaining that his 7-year-old daughter had tuned in the radio on the way to school and had gotten Howard Stern, and he wanted Stern censored. And I said, “You know, you’re her father. Turn off the radio.” What a concept. I have no patience with it, because I think if a parent isn’t enough of a parent to know what their children are listening to, where are these kids getting the money to buy these records?
Paulson: You mentioned Howard Stern. When people hear about the First Amendment Center, one of the frequent questions I get is, “So you defend people like Howard Stern?” And from now on, my stock answer is gonna be, “No, I don’t, but Janis Ian does.”
Paulson: You are a friend and supporter. You like being on the show?
Ian: Look, I think that one of the points of being an American is that there is free speech. Without free speech, this country is no different from any dictatorship, and we will go the way of a dictatorship. It’s too big, and there’s too much money to avoid it. Free speech is one of the few things standing between us and that sort of government. We’re the government. We’re supposed to be the government. That implies a lot of responsibility. Part of the responsibility is to make sure that Howard Stern, as despicable as you may find him, gets the opportunity to talk locker room trash on the air or that the Klan gets to march through the streets of Boston. I don’t like it, but I defend it.
Paulson: Is there any chance you could be on the show, like, every week?
Ian: Sure. Fly me up.
Paulson:… I’ve not heard it said better than that.
Ian: Thank you.
Paulson: It is a fine new album, and where do you rank it in your body of work?
Ian: My body of work. People have been asking me every interview lately how I want to be remembered, and I keep thinking, “Do they know something I don’t?” I actually like this album better than anything I’ve done since “Between the Lines,” and part of that is because eight months after we finished it, I’m actually still enjoying it.
Paulson: That’s great.
Ian: So that’s a rare thing for an artist. Usually within a month, you’re picking it apart and saying, “Oh, I blew it.”
Paulson: Thanks, Janis. It’s been a terrific conversation. We cannot end this program today without letting you hear some of the music of Janis Ian. Again, the new album is called “God and the FBI.” Here’s the new music from Janis Ian.
Ian: [Sings] “Mama’s making mimeos/ Pete’s on the stereo/ Singing ’bout freedom/ Bugs in the bedroom, big investigation/ Danger to the nation/ Search and seizure; better buy a lawyer/ We know you’re a member; saw you undercover/ Are you hiding evidence?/ None of this makes any sense/ They called the FBI/ I had to disappear/ Called the T-men, G-men. See you at the scene, men/ Told them I was hiding here/ They could fingerprint my heart/ Knew it from the start/ Ain’t no place for a face to hide/ From God and the FBI/ Got commies, pinkos, reds at the windows/ Foreign agitators running elevators/ J. Edgar Hoover in a pink tutu/ Investigating anyone who thinks like you/ So welcome to the ’50s/ You look a little shifty/ They called the FBI/ I had to disappear/ Called the T-men, G-men. See you at the scene, men/ Told them I was hiding here/ They could fingerprint my heart/ Knew it from the start/ Ain’t no hole for a soul to hide/ From God and the FBI/ Stay flat; don’t rat. What’s a proletariat?/ Stalin was a democrat. Washington is where it’s at/ Every politician is a sewer of ambition/ Hide me, hide you. Better hide the baby too/ We demand an interview/ How long have you been a Jew?/ We can make you testify/ Freedom is no alibi/ Called out the FBI/ I have to disappear/ Call the T-men, G-men. See you at the scene, men/ Tell them I am hiding here/ They can fingerprint my heart/ Knew it from the start/ Ain’t no place for a face to hide/ From God and the FBI.”
Tags: Speaking Freely