Wednesday, February 6, 2013

When We're Older Things May Change: Janis Ian's "Society's Child" (1966)

In 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech, declaring that children wouldn't "be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character." The Freedom Movement, which fought the early battles for desegregation in the South and voter registration for black Americans, was extending a call for a shared vision of interracial harmony. King, the political and spiritual leader of the civil rights struggle in the United States, called for the country to abandon the bitter legacy of slavery. King's speech, that hot day in August, hit like a bolt of lightning, and suddenly a vision of hope and possibility spread throughout the country. Critic Craig Werner persuasively describes that promise in his book A Change is Gonna Come: Music, Race & the Soul of America. "For people of all colours committed to racial justice, the Sixties were a time of hope," he writes. "You could hear it in the music: in the freedom songs that soared above and sunk within the hearts of marchers at Selma and Montgomery; in the gospel inflections of Sam Cooke's teenage love songs; in Motown's self-proclaimed soundtrack for 'young America'; in blue-eyed soul and English remakes of the Chicago blues; in Aretha Franklin's resounding call for respect; in Sly Stone's celebration of the everyday people and Jimi Hendrix's vision of an interracial tribe; in John Coltrane's celebration of a love supreme. For brief moments during the decade surrounding King's speech, many of us harboured real hopes that the racial nightmare might be coming to an end."

Janis Ian, a white Jewish girl who was born Janis Eddy Fink in New York City in 1951, was probably one of those touched by the hope that the racial nightmare would end. However, by 1966, the war in Vietnam had taken priority over Lyndon Johnson's war on poverty, and violent riots in black inner-city ghettoes every summer were reducing King's aspirations to ashes. Still, some American liberals wanted to see, in their films, television shows, and music, more racial harmony – despite evidence to the contrary. By the mid-Sixties, more black actors were appearing on bland TV shows, such as Bill Cosby on I Spy, or in solemn exercises in maudlin melodrama, like Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?, where Sidney Poitier, who had electrified audiences a decade earlier in The Blackboard Jungle, was reduced to a benevolent token. Under that haze of white liberal denial about some ugly facts, fourteen-year-old Ian wrote a song in 1966 about interracial dating while she was waiting to see the guidance counsellor. When "Society's Child" was recorded a year later, the tune stirred up a storm of reaction.

Janis Ian on The Tonight Show in 1967
"Society's Child" begins innocently enough with a baroque melody played on a harpsichord before the full orchestra joins in. Ian's voice hovers over the arrangement, with a longing that feels beyond her adolescent years, yet still has the buoyant anticipation of first love: "Come to my door, baby/Face is clean and shining black as night." Within moments, though, those eager yearnings start to crumble:

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."

Janis Ian today.
While Ian sings her mother's words to her black suitor, you can hear his response, not with words, but in the gospel organ crying out from behind her voice. Then the song turns into what we believe will be a story of defiant young lovers turning against the mendacity of their elders:

My teachers all laugh their smirking stares
Cutting deep down in our affairs
Preachers of equality
If they can't believe it, then why can't they just let us be?

Those were strong words for 1967. Ian was saying that all the talk of racial harmony was just platitudes – she was the one walking the talk. In the next verse, she stands up against the injustice:

One of these days, I'm gonna stop my listening
Gonna raise my head up high
One of these days, I'm gonna raise my glistening wings and fly.

But then, after she affirms her own values, the simple facts come crashing down:

But that day will have to wait for awhile
Baby, I'm only society's child
When we're older things may change
But for now this is the way

When it was released, "Society's Child" was banned on radio stations in both the North and the South. Unlike most topical folk songs which locked themselves into a clear opposition against the status quo, Ian spelled out instead that racism hadn't gone away – even within the character in the song. She went against the highly romantic idea that the goal of a protest song was to change the way people think and act. What I'm saying is that Janis Ian didn't make herself the proud spokesperson for the ideals of Martin Luther King's dream. Her thoughtful and intelligent single is instead an accurate account of liberal condescension, and of one young girl's honourable – yet failed – attempt to rise above it. You could say Janis Ian's song, which played hide-and-seek on the airwaves that year, cut right to the bone of the disease that culminated in Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination a year later.

– Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of Zappa). His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. Courrier is currently conducting a five-part lecture series called Woody Allen: Past and Present (with film clips) at the JCC Miles Nadal Centre in Toronto each Monday until February 11 from 7-9pm.


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