No one knows when they sit down to write something, that it will become iconic. There's no way of determining what will resonate with people in such a fashion that it will live on for decades of maybe even centuries, and hold a place in the hearts of listeners that is both uniquely personal and sacred.
I recently had a chance to sit in for a couple of days on a master class given by the Grammy-winning singer/songwriter, author and poet, Janis Ian.
Now, I've got to tell you from the get go that my knowledge of Ms. Ian when I walked into the class, was strictly limited to songs she had written and recorded decades earlier. I knew nothing about her life, her recent projects, or what she would hope to impart to a room full of young artists.
I had been belting out "At Seventeen" from the time I was about 12, and I may not have understood the true meaning of lines like "when payment due exceeds accounts received," until years later, but I understood angst and loneliness on a core level.
Small in stature, but huge in presence, the soft-spoken Janis Ian is an artist's artist. With a genius IQ, (which doesn't guarantee anyone the good sense to use intelligence wisely), she has masterfully used both her intellect as well as her heart to embark on many and varied artistic endeavors.
Patience and Sarah, released just this past September, is an audio book, narrated by Ian and Jean Smart. The lesbian-themed novel, written by Isabel Miller, is based on a true story about a turn of the 19th century painter and her female companion.
In addition to that, Janis Ian's book Who Really Cares: Childhood Poems has just been released in e-book format for the first time.
Her autobiography, Society's Child, garnered Ian her second Grammy for Best Spoken Word in 2013.
Always expanding her artistry, Ms. Ian will appear both acting and singing in the final episode of the HBO series Getting On scheduled to air November 21st.
"Whose bones do you stand on?" she asked the class on the first day. I immediately had a disturbing visual of hundreds of skeletons beneath the ground's surface on which I stood. But the point was really that we have to know where we come from to truly know who we are.
I pondered this as I drove home that day and back the next to sit in again. Janis Ian and I come from a similar Eastern European Jewish lineage. In fact, she resembles several relatives of mine, I realized, but that's the kind of information I thought would either intrigue or freak someone out, so I decided it was best to keep it to myself...until now, obviously.
I listened to her songs while commuting back and forth and I had an epiphany which I shared with her after class that second day.
I always assumed that my desire and ability to be excruciatingly vulnerable and honest in my songs was just in my DNA, but the truth is I grew up hearing songs of hers that gave me permission to do that. Her songs made me feel less alone and understood, and it has been my mission ever since to do that for others.
So I told her. "The bones I stand on are yours." And she smiled broadly and warmly, and for that indelible moment, I reveled in the knowledge that this was a lineage I was proud of, indeed.