This silent spring, filled with the loneliness of separation caused by the coronavirus pandemic, has become noisy again with the voices of protesters outraged at the murder of George Floyd and our country’s history of police violence against African-Americans. Several classic songs about racial injustice swirl in my head, including Bob Dylan’s “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” and Janis Ian’s “Society’s Child.” Using subtle, understated lyrics, Ian wrote of the pain of a young black man humiliated by his white girlfriend’s mother, who objected to their relationship.
Ian’s songs are treasures, and have long been on the cutting edge of telling us the truth about people’s lives. While it is remarkable that her talent was evident by the age of 14 (when she wrote “Society’s Child”), it’s now her endurance that is striking. She continues to write songs that expose painful subjects, laying bare her soul and the world’s potential for cruelty and kindness.
Ian, who was born in New York and primarily raised in New Jersey, started sharing introspective and revealing songs in the late ’60s and continues with “Better Times Will Come,” written at her home in Florida in March; she has shared this gorgeous song with NJArts.net’s Songs to See Us Through series. The video for it, made by singer-songwriter Christine Lavin, can be seen below.
“Better Times Will Come” resonates for those of us having a hard time during the pandemic. Ian’s acknowledgment of her own concerns and fears affirms our stress and also reminds me of her iconic song “At Seventeen,” which mirrors the pain young women face growing up in a harsh world that overemphasizes the value of physical attributes.
In “Better Times Will Come,” she lifts us by offering hope that we will get past current troubles. For those of us who are losing sleep, worrying about the death count and financial concerns — and feeling restless from the isolation of social distancing — the song is a welcome relief.
Ian’s voice is as rich as it was in her earlier songs; her lyrics as honest and vulnerable. She solemnly sings:
Better times, better times will come
When this world learns to live as one
Oh, better times will come
When we greet each dawn without fear
Knowing loved ones soon will be near
When the winds of war
Cannot blow any more
Oh, better times will come.
The song prompted Ian to launch her Better Times Project, designed to help artists who have been hurt financially during the pandemic. She encourages artists to submit their versions of the song and asks that listeners support the artists. She has posted more than 50 videos (there are also more than 20 other submissions that she has not yet posted) from diverse artists, breaking genre and geographic boundaries. You can see them at facebook.com/pg/janisianpage/videos.
After touring was suspended in mid-March, Ian quarantined at her home. “My wife and I had been watching in horror as the government of our state and our country deliberately ignored all the warning signs of a pandemic, and we decided to stay self-isolated as much as possible,” she said.
Like many of us, she started learning about colleagues who contracted the virus and recovered. But soon, she got the news that friends were dying. “And then, John Prine died,” she said. “I didn’t know John well, but I’d known him since his first time at the Philadelphia Folk Festival. I’d spoken with him at the Cambridge Folk Festival last year, I think, and had tremendous respect for him. John’s death hit me very hard. Unlike many of my colleagues, he’d survived not only his own demons, but illness after illness. It seemed like he’d go on for years.”
During these tragic times, it’s always an odd feeling to complete mundane tasks. Ian was attending to her weekly laundry chores when “better times, better times will come” began playing in her head. “I paid attention to it,” she said, “because sometimes that’s how the best songs come: All at once there’s a melody, and part of a lyric, and if you listen closely a song begins to form. So I wrote most of it as I did loads and folded clothing. It felt so organic, to use an overused word.”
When she finished the laundry, she said, “I grabbed paper and pen, sat down on our porch, and decided the song could open with a chorus. Then it was, ‘What do I really feel, and how do I convey it?’ I already knew what I hoped for every day: to get up in the morning and not worry about whether my family and friends were safe from this awful disease. … I finished the first verse, then wrote, ‘When we live each day as our last,’ because I thought it was important to give voice to everyone’s fear, including mine.
“Start to finish, it took about two hours. The only other song I’ve written that came that fast and that completely was ‘Stars,’ still my most covered song though not the most widely known.”
After receiving positive reactions from her Facebook post of the song, she contacted John Gorka and others to record her song. She asked artists to permit anyone to download the music for free for six months.
“The response to John’s version was absurd: 45,000 likes, a multitude of visitors to his site!,” she said. “From there, I noticed a trend. When I put something up, especially if there was a video, people often bought merchandise from that artist. So, I accomplished my first goal in asking my friends to join in, which was to help them get through, after they’d had to cancel out their work for a year.”
Ian breaks down barriers between herself and her listeners with “Better Times Will Come,” as she always has done. She changed the world and connected with many of us by writing “At Seventeen” and “Society’s Child.” Her words in the stunning “Stars” — which has been covered by Nina Simone and Joan Baez, among many others — are relevant and powerful today. She sings:
Stars, they come and go
They come fast or slow
They go like the last light
Of the sun, all in a blaze
And all you see is glory
But it gets lonely there
When there’s no one here to share
We can shake it away
If you’ll hear a story
Given the state of our world and growing suppression by our leader, we, more than ever, need to hear stories of all of our experiences, from stars and all the rest of us.
I asked her about the impact those songs had on her life. She replied, “Well, having a song like ‘At Seventeen’ or ‘Society’s Child’ is an incredible calling card. That the latter is still played more than 50 years later is a wonderful testimony to the song and the recording, and a sad reflection of how little we’ve grown as a culture. ‘At Seventeen’ continues to endure because it talks about something difficult to talk about, in a true way. That’s what I’ve always tried to do with my work — speak for those who can’t speak for themselves, and do it truthfully.”
Ian champions the lost voice in all of us, and the fearful one we feel now during the pandemic and this moment of protest against racial injustice.
Lavin’s video of the song is a beautiful display of images, including photos of Ian with family members. Ian says of one photo, which shows her with her mother and her “Bubby” (grandmother), “I was probably 25 or 26, because my Bubby had already had her stroke, but my mom, who had M.S., was still able to move around and hold herself up.”
There is also in a photo of her with her Uncle Bernie, who was her mother’s brother and the “first feminist I ever knew.” The video shows people of all ages, representing the journey of life.
Ian has not made a video of herself singing “Better Times Will Come.” “I’ve deliberately kept my face out of it, because, frankly, the point is not me,” she said. “That may sound absurdly altruistic (especially when we are funding the entire project ourselves), but I think artists have a responsibility to help other artists. Sometimes, that means shining the spotlight on them and staying in the wings yourself.”
During the pandemic, the Better Times Project has kept Ian busy about 10 hours a day, six days a week. “It would be seven, except my wife’s put her foot down because I was getting so tired. My webmaster is creating the blank pages and putting the MP3s up, but I’m doing everything else because it gets so expensive otherwise … so that means I’m the one talking to artists, reminding them to send square photos and lower res MP3’s, uploading to Facebook and YouTube, inserting all the links, writing all the descriptions, timing everything (or trying to) and on and on and on and on.”
She added, “This is a really hard time for everyone, even someone like me, who’s used to working from home. It’s easy to get depressed, or let the fear take over. I’m lucky because this project makes me feel like I’m contributing something to help other people. And just like ‘At Seventeen’ gave people hope, this is giving people hope — not just about COVID-19, but people who are mourning loved ones, or fighting other illnesses, or looking for ways to distract their children through things like our ‘coloring pages’ (developed with children’s book illustrators such as Sandra Boynton and Sue Coccia).”
She added, “the way I look at it, I’m incredibly lucky to have been born with this talent, into the right family and country and time for my talent to thrive. Part of my job is to give back to others, since I’ve been so richly endowed. That all sounds clichéd, but I mean every word of it.
“I hate that it’s frightening to go buy a carton of milk. I hate that it’s scary to take a walk. I hate the drama of getting in the car and thinking, ‘Do I have a mask? … Clean mask in case I need another? Antibacterial wipes? And why aren’t those people parking next to me putting on masks or taking precautions?’ I hate walking around the market here and watching parents with young children hugging people they haven’t seen in months because they’ve met up on vacation now, no masks, no precautions, no regard for anyone else. It really bothers me that the young people I see seem to think they’re immune, and that the governor of my state is such a fool. I get depressed, I get angry, I get scared. Heck, I’ve been running through more moods every day than I did when I was a teenager!”
I asked what project she is most proud of, over the past 10 years. “This one, without a doubt,” she said. “The Better Times Project, as people seem to be calling it, is bringing together so many different types of people and forms, it genuinely astonishes me. If I had to cap my career with one project, this would be it, because ultimately, the songs aren’t supposed to be about what I feel. They’re supposed to be about what the songs make you feel.”
To show support for Janis Ian and her Better Times Project, visit tinyurl.com/jifree.
NJArts.net’s Songs to See Us Through series is designed to spotlight songs relevant to the coronavirus crisis and encourage readers to support the artists who made them (and won’t be able to generate income via concerts at this time). Click here for links to all songs in the series.
We encourage artists to email us submissions (newly recorded, if possible) at email@example.com. Please include links to sites such as Patreon and Venmo. Readers can also make suggestions via that email address.
CONTRIBUTE TO NJARTS.NET
Since launching in September 2014, NJArts.net has become one of the most important media outlets for the Garden State arts scene. And it has always offered its content without a subscription fee, or a paywall. Its continued existence, though, depends on support from members of that scene, and the state’s arts lovers. Please consider making a contribution of $10, or any other amount, to NJArts.net via PayPal, or by sending a check made out to NJ Arts Daily to 11 Skytop Terrace, Montclair, NJ 07043.