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Queer as folk music: the legendary Janis Ian returns with an outstanding new ED, Folk Is the New Black, but while her songs cover many different issues, she's too busy having a successful same-sex marriage to sing about it.

At the height of civil rights fervor in the mid 1960s, when Janis Ian was just 15 years old, she sparked controversy with "Society's Child," her precocious lament for a forbidden love whose face shined "black as night." In the mid '70s, she scored a surprise hit with "At Seventeen," her sad shout-out to "ugly-duckling girls like me." The '80s were marked by a broken heterosexual marriage and a move to the songwriters' haven of Nashville, then in 1993 she came out as a lesbian, around the same time as those two other courageous pop music dykes, k.d. lang and Melissa Etheridge.

Now she's going back to her other natural roots: Greenwich Village and folk music. Her new CD--the 24th album of her 40-year recording career--is slyly titled Folk Is the New Black. "I just figured pink is the new black, green is the new black ... folk might as well be," says Ian on the phone from Tennessee, where she lives with Pat Snyder, her partner of 17 years--and wife of nearly three--who's an attorney as well as the illustrator of the slumped guitar on the new CD's cover. The album is less pure folk than simply stripped-down and unadorned Ian: She's accompanied only by guitar, bass, percussion, and organ. Ian's darkly resonant vocals--and she's kept her instrument in fine fettle--were recorded live.

The songs can't help but elaborate on standard folk fare. "I have a hard time writing a three-chord song, and I'm not great at writing sing-alongs," she says. "I think because I grew up on folk and jazz and classical, I tend to get more complex than most folksingers, and it's a tendency that, on an album like this, I have to watch because I really didn't want it to get complicated."

On Folk, Ian turns a smart, jaundiced eye toward prejudice ("Danger Danger"), greed ("Haven't I Got Eyes"), war ("The Last Train"), love ("All Those Promises"), and even the autobiography she's going to write next year--on "My Autobiography" she sings, "I've led a fascinating life / Had a husband and a wife / But you will truly be amazed / At just how humble I've stayed." She still knows how to pluck heartstrings with beautiful melodies, especially on a song like "The Great Divide," and she offers an equal dollop of hope ("Joy") to balance out her well-aimed raps on today's deadliest lies and sins. Folk music, she affirms, never really goes out of style.

"I think that right now you've got a couple of generations that are pretty lost, in terms of any kind of North Star," Ian says, "and folk music is a good place to be lost. Folk music has always been the music the disenfranchised make, and the outlaws make, just like rock and roll."

About the only hot topic Ian doesn't touch on the new CD is same-sex marriage, but she covers that by example. "I think it's amazing what a good job the Christian right has done of diverting attention from other, more pressing issues by worrying about their children being infected with homosexuality," she points out. "It's like Pat says--I'm normal, and I treat myself and my relationship as normal. I think that for the thousands of people who see me onstage every year talking about my partner, who may not even realize I'm gay until they get to the show, that does a lot of good. Because all of a sudden, the person who wrote 'At Seventeen' isn't such an alien."

Kort is author of Soul Picnic: The Music and Passion of Laura Nyro.
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Title Annotation:MUSIC
Author:Kort, Michele
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Article Type:Sound recording review
Date:Mar 14, 2006
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