Melissa Merli: Ian still making beautiful music

Melissa Merli: Ian still making beautiful music

When I was a teenager, Janis Ian's hit songs "Society's Child" and "At Seventeen" were touchstones for me. Over the years, though, I lost track of the folk singer and her work as I got more and more into jazz and classical.

So I was surprised to discover the other day that she was performing Thursday evening at the Doudna Fine Arts Center at Eastern Illinois University. The affordable $20 ticket included a picnic-buffet dinner beforehand.

I immediately went online to listen to "Society's Child," the song she had written at age 14.

I hadn't heard it in decades. I wept through the entire song. And after all these years, I consider myself somewhat of a cynic.

Her beautiful voice and the heart-wrenching, heartfelt lyrics took me back to how I felt in the '60s, to the ideals I held back then — and to the deep loss I feel now for a different time, when songs with substantive lyrics by people who weren't necessarily glamorous hit the top of the charts. (And when there weren't two or three school shootings a month.)

I'm happy to report, after having gone to the concert at Doudna, that the 63-year-old musician's voice remains beautiful. It's a bit deeper but can still hit the high notes, though she told us she's now singing in lower keys.

And her guitar playing is more than solid — her bio indicates she was Chet Atkins' favorite guitarist. For most of the solo concert, she played a custom Santa Cruz Janis Ian acoustic guitar.

Ian kept the audience engaged throughout her two-hour gig, joking, telling anecdotes of her life, and as most musicians do, giving us her creds. One of the most impressive: She won a 2013 Grammy for spoken word for the audio version of her memoir, "Society's Child." Her formidable competition: Bill Clinton, Michelle Obama, Rachel Maddow and Ellen DeGeneres.

"In all honesty, no one was more stunned than me," she said.

She joked that there was a joke in the set of five nominees that would start out "an ex-president, a first lady and three lesbians walk into a bar..." (Ian was married to and later divorced from a man. She and her long-time female partner were married in 2003 in Toronto. They live in Nashville, Tenn.)

She also told us of her mother, Pearl, an immigrant who grew up in a tenement in the Bronx. At night, as a kid, her mother and her older brother would sneak out and go to Harlem to hear Billie Holliday, Sarah Vaughn, Odetta and other greats sing.

Janis Ian and her own brother later fulfilled one of their mother's lifelong dreams by paying her way through college. Then suffering from multiple sclerosis, Pearl Ian finished her low-residency degree in 14 years.

After she died in 1998, her daughter created the Pearl Foundation. It gives scholarship money to five different colleges including Godard and Berea. So far, $750,000 has been raised, with an additional $5,000 a year via a tip jar Ian puts on her merch table at concerts.

After she spoke of her mother, Ian sang the moving "If I Could Only Hear My Mother Sing Again." Woody Guthrie had started the song. After he died, his widow, Nora, gave it to Ian to finish. She did so, in three hours.

Ian opened the concert with "Searching for America" and ended with "I'm Still Standing." After a standing ovation, she led a sing-along to her folksy version of "I Got You Babe," one of the greatest pop songs of all time.

In between, Ian did a number of her songs, among them "At Seventeen," for which she won the 1976 Grammy for best female pop performance and my concert companion call the teen misfit's anthem. Her rendition of "Society's Child" was stripped down. After she finishedt she bowed her head and took a deep breath.

She had called it a "little song" she had written at age 14; many radio stations banned it because it's about an inter-racial romance.

She told of how as a 15-year-old she sang "Society's Child" at a concert hall in Encino, Calif. She was shocked when 20 or so members of the audience began chanting a racist epithet at her.

She kept playing. She finally left the stage, burst into tears and fled to the ladies' room. Her promoter found her and urged her to go back out. He told her he didn't believe a girl who had written that song was a coward.

She did. As she launched back into the song, the chants began again. Finally,  a few audience members physically forced the protesters to sit. And young ushers shone flashlights at them. They got up and "slunk out," Ian said.

Ian took 10 years off from the music business to write her autobiography — it opens with a description of the Encino concert — and the children's book "The Tiny Mouse," with illustrations by Ingrid and Dieter Schubert. The book includes a CD of Ian singing her song of the same title; she also sang "The Tiny Mouse" during the concert.

If you're an Ian fan, look this fall on TV for the WEIU broadcast of the Ian concert at Doudna.

Dee Dee honored

Former University of Illinois jazz band vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater this past week received the Jazz Journalists Association's Willis Conover-Marian McPartland Award for Broadcasting. The jazz singer, ex-wife of Champaign native Cecil Bridgewater, a jazz trumpeter, is the on-air host of the NPR series "Jazz Set."

News-Gazette staff writer Melissa Merli can be reached at 351-5367 or mmerli@news-gazette.com. Her blog is at news-gazette.com/blogs/art-and-about.

Topics (1):Music

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