Janis Ian – Janey’s Blues

4th October 2023 · 1960s, 1967, Music, Singer-songwriter

I’ve just heard this song for the first time – only half a century after it first came out. And… wow. It’s a spellbinding, heartbreaking account of a loveless marriage and the effect it’s had on the life of their unwanted child.

Powerful stuff; even more so when you learn that Janis Ian was only 16 when it appeared on her debut album in 1967. By then she had already had a huge hit with her first hit single, the controversial Society’s Child – originally titled Baby I’ve Been Thinking – which she penned when she was just 13.

She has said of it that she conceived the song when she was 12, wrote it at 13, published it at 14, became known at 15, and was a has-been at 16. And, she might have added, eventually enjoyed a comeback in 1973 with a song Called At Seventeen.

This, though, is the song that stopped me in my tracks when I heard it the other day. The lyric is intensely emotional and the music gives it added power, with the gentle guitar and organ interweaving.

The fusion of soul, folk and jazz elements, produced by George ‘Shadow’ Morton (the man behind Shangri-Las hits like Leader Of The Pack), reminds me of Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, released the following year. The final instrumental section is extraordinary.

I’ve no idea if the story in the song is at all autobiographical but she invests it with such intensity that you feel as if it is; not that it matters. Janis Fink, the grandchild of two Jewish refugees from Eastern Europe, was raised on a farm in New Jersey by her parents Victor and Pearl, a music teacher and college fundraiser who ran summer camps in upstate New York.

A musical prodigy, she began piano lessons at two years of age and by her teens was proficient at the organ, guitar, French horn and harmonica too. She wrote her first song at 12 and the following year she legally changed her name to Janis Ian – her brother Eric’s middle name.

Released at the height of the civil rights movement, Society’s Child sold 600,000 copies and her self-titled debut from which that song – and this – is taken, sold 350,000.

But she disappeared from view, and her career nosedived, after a campaign to cancel her by Bill Cosby, who had seen her sleeping with her head on the lap of her chaperone = an older family friend – at a TV recording when she was 16.

Ironic in more than one way: firstly because he was cancelling a champion of racial equality, secondly because he would end up being cancelled – and jailed – for being a sexual predator, and thirdly because Janis (who was merely sleeping) did eventually, come out as a lesbian.