Janis was 13 when she began working on this, 14 when she finished. She started it while waiting outside the office of her guidance counselor, who was kind enough to call Janis in for consults every time she had a science class. After that, she wrote most of it on the school bus.
This song is about an interracial romance. Janis was living in an all-black neighborhood in East Orange, New Jersey, where she was one of five white kids in the school. She told us: "I saw it from both ends. I was seeing it from the end of all the civil rights stuff on the television and radio, of white parents being incensed when their daughters would date black men, and I saw it around me when black parents were worried about their sons or daughters dating white girls or boys. I don't think I knew where I was going when I started it, but when I hit the second line, 'face is clean and shining black as night,' it was obvious where the song was going."
Janis: "I don't think I made a conscious decision to have the girl cop out in the end, it just seemed like that would be the logical thing at my age, because how can you buck school and society and your parents, and make yourself an outcast forever."
Janis didn't write this about a particular person: "My parents were the complete opposite of the parents in the song. They wouldn't have cared if I married a Martian, as long as I was happy... I felt bad for my Dad because everyone assumed he was a racist."
This was about the 10th song Janis wrote. Her first was a song called "Hair Of Spun Gold," which was published in Broadside when she turned 13. Broadside was an underground magazine that published folk songs by artists like Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger before they hit the mainstream. They invited her to sing it at one of their periodic shows they put on in Greenwich Village, where it got a huge reaction. Broadside kept asking Janis back, and "Society's Child" became one of the songs that became part of these performances.
Shadow Morton is a songwriter and producer who worked with The Shangri-Las before discovering Janis. This is how she describes their first meeting: "The way we got it cut was I was hanging around with the Reverend Gary Davis trying to learn guitar from him. His wife took a liking to me and told the owner of The Gaslight Cafe, Clarence Hood, that she needed me to open for the Reverend Gary. I did and this guy came running back stage and said 'kid, I'm going to make you a star,' which was such a cliché because I was into being a folk singer, I didn't need to be a star. Plus, at 14, you don't need to earn a living. I met him after school the next day and he took me up to Shadow Morton's office. Shadow was in one of his periodic funks, thinking he was going to leave the music business. He was sitting there with his cowboy boots on the desk, sunglasses and hat pulled over his head reading the New York Times, and he said 'yeah, go ahead.' So I sang him some songs, and realized he wasn't listening. Apparently, although I don't remember it, I pulled out a cigarette lighter and lit his newspaper on fire and left. A few minutes later he realized his newspaper was burning, put it out in the trash can, and thought 'what am I walking away from here.' He caught up with me in the elevator, pulled me back and actually listened. For some reason he decided this was the one we would cut, and a week later we were in the studio cutting it."
Janis: "I was pleased with the chorus because I had just learned to play an F-sharp minor chord. I had no idea it was unusual to have the chorus slowed down, but it became a real problem when we went to cut it."
At the time, many folk musicians looked down on pop radio, but Janis thought it was cool because they were playing Bob Dylan's "Like A Rolling Stone," even though many of her fellow musicians thought he sold out.
Janis recorded this with six studio musicians. At a time when 3-4 songs were often cut in a three-hour session, they worked for two-and-a-half hours on this song without making much progress. The breakthrough came when the upright bass player, a jazz musician named George Duvivier, had everyone stop and really listen to the lyrics and get an idea what the song was about. They nailed it on the next take.
At the time, many studio musicians were just trying to crank out hit records, and rarely thought much about the lyrics and what the song was about. Having a jazz player in the session made a huge difference because he was willing to work with the vocalist.
Shadow Morton took this to 22 record companies before Verve/Folkways, a spin-off of MGM Records, took it as a tax loss. They signed artists like Janis, Richie Havens, and Laura Nyro expecting them to lose money. They did believe in the song and pushed hard to promote it. The song got some great reviews and isolated airplay in places like Flint, Michigan and parts of New York City. It gained some momentum as part of the protest movement, and also benefited from the rise of FM radio, which was willing to take a chance on songs like this.
Janis: "Lyrics in pop music were not a big issue until Dylan, and he was thought of as kind of a fluke."
The big break for this song came when Leonard Bernstein's producer saw Janis perform it at The Gaslight, and got her on his upcoming television special. The show had a huge audience - it was on Sunday night at 8, in a time when most people got only 3 or 4 stations and there was very little music on TV. Bernstein loved it and criticized radio stations for not playing it. The next day Janis' record company started promoting it in trade magazines and many radio stations picked it up. It was never a #1 hit because radio stations in many areas took a while before they added it, but this slow progression kept the song popular for a long time.
For most of the '90s, Janis dropped this from her set list because no one wanted to hear it, but then a lot of people who grew up listening to it started coming to her shows and asking for it. Many of these people were Vietnam veterans who heard the song because it was widely played on Radio Free Europe and on US military bases.
The original title was "Baby, I've Been Thinking." It was Shadow Morton's idea to change the title. (Check out the full Janis Ian interview
This was inducted into the Grammy Hall Of Fame in 2001.
In 2008, Janis Ian released her autobiography, which she titled Society's Child. She told About.com: "I just took the first three months of 2007 and went through all my old journals, went through a lot of old letters I had friends send back to me, a bunch of old press clippings. I kind of made a map of my life. I attached a time to when the songs were written, when the records were made, when songs were hits. And then once I decided to do a prologue and open it with the 'Society's Child' chapter, it all pretty much fell into place." (thanks, Bertrand - Paris, France)
According to the 2010 United States Census, Janis Ian's home city of East Orange has a population of just 64,270, yet it has spawned a host of other successful artists including Dionne Warwick, Whitney Houston, Queen Latifah, Gordon MacRae, Young & Company, Naughty By Nature as well as Curtis Hudson and Lisa Stevens, the writers of Madonna's first hit, "Holiday