As Woodstock approaches its 40th sun-drenched, mud-soaked anniversary, it’s high-time to spruce up your cultural literacy. The Essential Janis Ian can assist with folksinger-songwriter Ian as emissary. The new double disc CD, released by Columbia/Legacy, spans this provocative artist’s career and the opener includes a song written by Ian at the age of 12 — though recorded at the age of 15 — called “Hair of Spun Gold”.
Ian’s youthful, angelic voice muses about a young woman reflecting back on her life after having her own child. It’s an exquisitely well-structured song, especially for one so tender in years. It recalls the classic Sinatra hit “When I Was Seventeen” or Glen Campbell’s recording of “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” (written by Jimmy Webb) in terms of classic song-craft symmetry. “And now I’m 21 / I feel my life’s over and done” surges mid-song, and delicate imagery regarding golden hair and ruby red lips provide patina.
Ian’s paperback version of “Society’s Child” is due out simultaneously, which — in great detail and using an evocative, but casual conversational tone — chronicles the back story behind the writing of many of the songs. There’s mention of Ian’s appearances with ‘60s artists such as Donovan, Dylan, and Richie Havens. She hung out with Hendrix and Joplin. She drew interpretive inspiration from Billie Holiday and Odetta.
“Silly Habits” is the stand-out jazz track, embellished with sophisticated, lounge-act piano passages and once sung with Mel Torme — receiving a Grammy nomination — that whets the appetite for more of that genre. “God and the FBI” is based on Ian and her family’s real-life experience of being under surveillance because of her parents’ leftist-leanings. Ian, however, took what could have been a dark subject and unleashes levity using irreverent lyrical nods towards J. Edgar Hoover accompanied by electric-based country twang. Along those comic lines is “My Autobiography”, a detailed cheeky monologue. The lusciously cerebral “Stars” is a nearly- whispered ballad with delicate guitar work that even inspired a sci-fi Anthology bearing the same name, in which writers wove oft eerie tails about original songs by Ian.
Some of the tunes are purely romantic ballads, such as “Every Love” and “I Long for You”. But “Jesse”, a paean to impassioned commitment, made even more famous by vocalist Roberta Flack in a ’73 recording, is particularly drenched with tenderness. Like a Tibetan lama, Ian demonstrates impeccable vocal restraint alongside an in-the-moment ability to express emotional truth.
Other songs pay tribute to the powerless, misunderstood or unsung. “Tattoo” zeroes in on a concentration camp survivor. “At Seventeen”, a poignantly strummed samba that garnered Ian a ‘75 Grammy for Best Vocal Performance, explores the alienation of an unpopular “ugly duckling girl like me”. “His Hands” describe Ian’s real-life experience with domestic abuse, with Ian chillingly proclaiming, “His hands never marked my face”.
There’s a vast array of surprises. One cut, “Ginny the Flying Girl”, was written for Sesame Street, but it’s imaginative protagonist is ageless. “My Tennessee Hills” — perhaps obligatory, as Ian now resides in songwriter-rich Nashville — features a duet with country-star Dolly Parton. It’s plaintive and backwoodsy and a good opener for Disc 2. The truculent trounce of “This Train Still Runs” affirms Ian’s positive spirit and resilience as she displays sparkling vocals and steady guitar chops.
Ian’s late ‘60s hit “Society’s Child” was blacklisted by radio stations due to its interracial theme, and a radio station in Atlanta was torched for playing it (according to Ian’s autobiography). Ian recorded it at 15. In 2001, it became a Grammy Hall of Fame winner. It bears the innocent girl-group feel of the era via Ian’s simple guitar work and emotive vocal.
Unfortunately, Ian — then only 16 — never got to Woodstock. But, time-travel through the turbulence and tranquility which that era represents can be realized through many of these tracks. “This Train”, as Ian might admit, “Still Runs”. Not like the “little engine that could”, but like the sleek high-powered Shinkansen of Tokyo. The Essential Janis Ian is thrillingly powerful and expansive.