A Valentine for Janis Ian:

In Concert at Cal Tech in Pasadena

Saturday, March 23, 2013

By Ross Altman

Janis_Ian“Give me a good guitar and a place to stand,” said Leadbelly, “And I’ll rock this whole town.” The 1960s’ other Janis—Janis Ian—self-described ugly duckling from her greatest song—had two good guitars last night and a place to stand at a sold-out Cal Tech Folk Music Society Concert in Beckman Institute Auditorium, and she rocked my socks off for two full hours. Nothing loud or high up on the db meter, mind you, just exquisite finger-style acoustic guitar playing, gently flowing all over the fingerboard, with graceful chord changes that fused folk, jazz and blues idioms into a seamless whole to accompany her poetic storytelling songs from deep into her matchless catalogue.

In between songs—which tended to reveal the dark moments in a life lived on the ragged edge of hope and despair—she regaled her passionately appreciative audience with hilarious tales from the road—including an improvised story about a tiny mouse that takes over a pirate ship—written on commission for last year’s London Olympic games.

Janis won her first Grammy in 1975 for her greatest song—At 17—in which she likens herself to the Hans Christian Anderson anti-hero, the ugly ducking, for whom “Valentines never came.” Two years later she received 461 Valentines from admirers around the world who wanted to let her know she wasn’t alone. Make that 462.

Ian’s second Grammy came just this year, for Spoken Word recording, a ten CD boxed- set of her 2008 autobiography Society’s Child—the title of which comes from her first hit, written at the age of only 13 in 1964, a ballad about an interracial romance that became so notorious upon its 3rd release in 1967—the hit version—that a radio station in Atlanta was burned down for playing it. Janis paid tribute during her concert to Ed Pearl’s legendary folk club The Ash Grove, where she was invited to play “my little songs” during the height of the controversy.

Her Grammy-winning spoken word recording was up against some major competition from the likes of Bill Clinton, Michelle Obama, Rachel Maddow and Ellen DeGeneres. And even though Janis—known for delving into depressing subjects like incest in her song Breaking Silence—proclaimed, “I don’t do funny” during another anecdote in her show, she in fact “does funny” like a born comedian. She introduced her song about writing her life story by telling how her longtime partner Patricia (Janis has been out about being a lesbian since her first marriage—to a man—broke up in 1983) commented upon finishing it in manuscript, “Now I know what the glue is that holds us together—we both love you.”

My Autobiography

I know you and I'll agree

What this world needs is a lot more me

Well, I have got the remedy

Gonna write my autobiography

I've led a fascinating life

Had a husband and a wife

but you will truly be amazed

at just how humble I have stayed

Enough about me, let's talk about you

What do you think of me?

You must feel such gratitude

that you will get to read

my autobiography

My life doesn't have a very good plot

Guess I'll have to lie a lot

Should be easy to make things up

There's no one left to call my bluff

A lot of my old friends have passed on

The rest did drugs and their memory's gone

so I'll write my own history

in my autobiography…

© Rude Girl Pub. All rights reserved; international copyright secured.

What made the song sparkle, in addition to its gently poking fun at her favorite target—herself—was the distinctive Bo Diddley rhythm (the same one Buddy Holly used for Not Fade Away) that requires those rhymed couplets to set it off—a brilliant tribute to the great black R&B singer she grew up on in…the Bronx of the 1950s—before folk music won her ears over and gave her a new way to channel her lyrical voice and musical ability—in which she first studied piano, at the age of six or seven. By the time she reached her teens Ian had learned the organ, harpsichord, French horn, flute and guitar. Her guitar playing is thus enriched by a musical vocabulary foreign to most folk singers. And yet the overall effect of her playing is simplicity itself; she is not a flashy instrumentalist, but—again like Leadbelly—makes every note count—as well as the silences between.

Her older brother introduced her to folk music by taking her to see Odetta when she was only nine years old. From then on her fate was sealed. Like the late great Libba Cotton she was precocious, writing her first song at the age of 12. Just one year later she composed her classic Society’s Child—a daring young girl on the flying trapeze. Leonard Bernstein happened to hear it and featured it on his TV show—unwittingly putting Janis in the crosshairs of the racial bigots for whom the idea of interracial dating (“Would you let your daughter marry one?”) was the dreaded end result of civil rights. Janis started receiving hate mail and death threats and came to realize that folk music was more than music—it was life-changing and society challenging.

Along with Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Len Chandler and Phil Ochs she helped define the 1960s’ folk revival—in a 4’10’’pintsized body with a giant talent—singing on behalf of the discriminated against, the outcast, the left out, and yes, the ugly ducklings. In her Beckman concert appearance, on the eve of the Supreme Court’s consideration of the right of gays and lesbians to marry, Janis Ian told of a series of hilarious encounters with Nashville shopkeepers as she and her partner Pat were picking out bridal clothes for the wedding they had planned on in the nearest country that completely sanctioned gay marriage—the symbol of freedom since the days of the Underground Railroad—Canada. They decided to get married in Toronto during a trip to a Science Fiction Convention—which they were attending because Janis Ian is also a science fiction novelist.

In Nashville, where they now live and have been together for nearly twenty years, they went to a bridal shop and told the shopkeeper they were looking for a wedding gown. “Which one of you is the lucky woman?” the clerk asked. “We both are,” they chimed in. “Yes, but which one of you is getting married?” “We both are,” they repeated. “Yes, but which one of you is shopping for the dress today?” Again, “Both of us.” “Oh,” the clerk screamed, “I get it; you’re going to have a double wedding!”

But when they got to Toronto and checked into their hotel, the clerk asked them why they were in Toronto, to which they replied, “We’re here to get married.” “Oh!” he replied, “In that case I’ll give you the bridal suite!” Their life seemed so simple in Toronto, so hard to explain in Nashville. And then Janis Ian did a new comic masterpiece which she has yet to record, about how different a lesbian like her feels in a country where she can be taken for granted, versus one in which the Supreme Court would be necessary to grant her fundamental human rights. I believe this one can be downloaded for free on her website.

Another highlight of her show was a unique tribute to the late Woody Guthrie, with whom, thanks to Nora Guthrie, Janis Ian has now cowritten a moving song that Woody started but never finished, If I Could Only Hear My Mother Sing Again. Nora found the first verse on a lyric sheet among Woody’s voluminous papers, and as she has been doing now for twenty years, decided for whom it would be a good match. She told Janis, “This one has your name on it. Would you try to complete it and set it to music?” What Janis did with it would have made Woody proud; it’s a song unlike any other in his still growing songbag, “All my friends and family could sing along and set our spirits free.” She both captures Woody’s spirit and extends it so that it would speak to anyone who missed hearing their mother’s voice—and how a song could make that possible. Amazingly, forty-six years after Janis Ian’s first major hit in the same year that Woody died on October 3, 1967, she was able to come full circle and bring Woody back to life again with a brand new song that he first breathed life into. What a special gift.

After the intermission Janis came back and switched to a more mellow guitar for a set of more intimate songs. She also switched “costumes,” as it were, from a bright commanding blue blouse to an elegant black top that blended in more with her dark pants. When someone in the audience commented on it, Janis said, “Of course; I told you I am a professional!” (Just in case you thought that because you were at a college concert you were not going to get a fully mounted show.)

During the second half of her concert she paid tribute to her own mother—Pearl—and made her a full part of the show. Janis Ian has started—in her mother’s name—the Pearl Foundation to support older people who because of personal hardship never got to go to college or finish their education—of whom her mother was one. Because when she was growing up it was common for families who could only afford to send one child to college to choose the male child—or oldest male child—and leave girls to find work that did not require a college education, Ian’s mother was forced to go to work after high school to help her brother through school.

So when Janis and her own brother were grown they decided on their own to help their mother go back to school—after she was stricken with multiple sclerosis. And then after their mother graduated they started a foundation to help others in the same situation; the Pearl Foundation has now given away over $700,000 to help older adults get an education. All of the money Janis raises at her merchandising table—with her book, her CDs and DVDs—as well as a tip jar—goes to fund that charity.

To go along with her story she sang another recent song, I’m Still Standing Here, about making it through some hard times and not giving up. Her greatest song remains the one she ended on—and which I heard my friend and fellow performer Carol McArthur sing at a recent musical gathering—At 17—which starts out with the memorable lines:

I learned the truth at 17

That love was made for beauty queens.

It is more than a great song; it’s one of the bravest songs ever written. Out of the desolation of a teenager who feels she will never amount to anything, or ever be loved, or ever be beautiful or able to find happiness, she hews, as Martin Luther King put it in his greatest speach, out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope—a great work of art, but also a great work of heart.

In that song the ugly duckling of Janis Ian’s youth transforms herself into the swan of a great performing artist, whose audience stood up as one at the end and gave her the regard that every artist yearns for. The smile of gratitude on Ian’s glowing face spoke volumes. I was so grateful to be there and to be a part of it.

But that was only the end of act two. Her encore was of a different order altogether. If she were a baseball pitcher rather than a singer one might call it a changeup, for she couldn’t top the momentum that led up to the final notes of At Seventeen. So she went low and outside and won us over with a completely different pitch. She called up to the soundbooth at the top of the back row and asked the engineer to bring her guitar case down to the stage. It was a beautiful light tan Carleton case, made in Canada, that touring artists prize because you can drop it from the Empire State Building and still find your guitar intact when you open it up. It has a better chance of surviving a plane crash than you do. You can sit on it without making a dent.

Which is what she proceeded to do, turning it on its side, and straddling it like Phil Ochs in his great first album cover, where he is sitting on his guitar case reading the New York Times. Janis Ian stepped away from the microphone, sat down on the case at the foot of the stage, and sang her classic song of lost love—Jesse—as if she were singing it just for him—wherever he may have been:

Jesse come home, there's a hole in the bed

Where we slept; now it's growing cold.

Jesse your face, in the place where we lay

By the hearth, all apart, it hangs on my heart

And I'm leaving the light on the stairs

No I'm not scared; I wait for you

Hey Jesse, it's lonely, come home.

Jesse the stairs in the halls, recalling

Your step; and I remember too.

All the pictures are shaded and fading in grey

And I still set a place on the table at noon

And I'm leaving the light on the stairs

No I'm not scared; I wait for you

Hey Jesse, it's lonely, come home.

Jesse the spread on the bed,

It's like when you left, I kept it for you.

All the blues and the greens have been recently cleaned

And are seemingly new;

Hey Jess, me and you.

We'll swallow the light on the stairs

I'll fix up my hair, we'll sleep unawares

Hey Jesse, it's lonely, come home.

It reads like a poem, and the audience hesitated to even break its final spell with applause. Until we did. I realized afterwards that Janis Ian had saved a final magical touch for the end, for we were her Jesse—and the room was full. It was method acting that leant real resonance to her earlier tribute to acting coach Stella Adler who took Janis Ian under her wing early in her career and became her mentor. To have learned stagecraft from the woman who taught Marlon Brando, James Dean and Montgomery Clift, and to have absorbed it so completely that it was all but invisible, well it showed me how seriously Janis Ian takes her role as performing artist, beyond the circle of great singer-songwriters she belongs to. She does not just get up in front of a microphone and—like most everyone else in the trade—sing her songs as best she can.

In retrospect, what we saw was a three-act play, brilliantly written, produced and directed by Janis Ian. It had an intermission, a change of costume, and at the end a change of scenery and set, as she brought the entire audience into her most intimate confidence, creating out of a classroom auditorium a theatre of the mind and heart. It was a bravura performance by an essential American artist—sixty-two years old and forever young.

Thank you to Rex Mayreis and Nick Smith of the CalTech Folk Music Society who sponsored Ian’s concert and gave me a press pass two days before—after it was sold out. They have an outstanding concert series lined up for the rest of the year and do a great job of making the audience feel welcome into their venue—including Rex and Nancy’s homebaked brownies & cookies—folk music the way it was meant to be seen and heard.

Ross Altman will host Rebels With a Cause, a tribute to Paul Robeson, Marian Anderson, and Phil Och on Tuesday, April 9, 2013 at The Talking Stick Coffeehouse at 1411 Lincoln Blvd in Venice, 310-450-6052 , 7:00 to 10:00pm—free and open to the public.

On Saturday, April 27 Ross will perform in San Diego at Adams Ave Unplugged;

On Sunday, May 19 Ross performs at the Topanga Banjo-Fiddle Contest and Folk Festival; for info on tickets, contest registration and volunteer opportunities go to their website

On Sunday, June 15 Ross returns to Claremont for the 30th Claremont Folk Festival; for info on tickets, a complete list of performers and volunteer opportunities go to the Claremont Folk Festival website.

Ross Altman may be reached at greygoosemusic@aol.com