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Janis Ian: The singer now also storyteller

Touring is old hat to Janis Ian. The Grammy-winning folk legend has been taking her music on the road periodically since 1967.

Touring is old hat to Janis Ian. The Grammy-winning folk legend has been taking her music on the road periodically since 1967.

Back then she was a timid 16-year-old, shaken by the heckling and hate mail that greeted her controversial hit, "Society's Child," a haunting song about interracial dating that she wrote when she was 14.

"It's really different right now," says Ian, 57, on the phone as she is driven from a radio studio in Ohio to a gig in Pittsburgh, "because I'm concentrating on the autobiography, so I'm telling stories as much as I am singing."

Her book, Society's Child, traces her incredibly volatile life and career, which took her from privilege to privation. It details her efforts to stay creative while coping with an abusive husband as well as a variety of physical and mental ailments.

"Everyone assumes that people like me never make mistakes or have problems," she says of her rationale for writing. "They think you're not appearing on Carson or Leno anymore because you choose not to be."

Her accounts offer a ringside seat at the colorful carnival that was the '60s: snorting cocaine (disastrously) with Jimi Hendrix, sitting next to Frank Zappa in a Manhattan club for the American debut of Cream.

Ian (born Janis Eddy Fink in the Bronx) will be persuing both guises - musician and memoirist - when she comes to town this week.

On Friday, she'll be reading and signing at the Chester County Bookstore. And over the weekend, she'll be performing and participating in workshops at the Philadelphia Folk Festival.

The Upper Salford hootenanny is a familiar haunt for Ian. "This will make my 10th time [playing there]," she says proudly. "Twice a decade for five decades."

Longtime festival impresario Gene Shay recalls the time Ian razzed Judy Collins, who had a contract that stipulated she must be driven to the venue in a limo and escorted to the stage by a phalanx of men.

According to Shay, when Collins stepped out of the white stretch sedan in a gold-lamé gown, Ian yelled at her, "Judy, it's a folk festival!" (Collins and Ian are both on the Saturday night bill this year.)

Shay also recounts the time in the '70s when Bob Dylan showed up unannounced at the festival with David Bromberg and started wandering around backstage.

"After Janis sang her song 'At Seventeen,' one of the first times she played that to a large audience here," Shay says, "Dylan went over to her and complimented her on it. She was on cloud nine."

Ian remembers the incident somewhat differently in Society's Child. In her version, the song that won Dylan's approbation was "Stars." Afterward "I rode back to the hotel on his lap and he made an inarticulate proposition, which I declined in favor of going back to Bromberg's room for a late-night jam."

Visiting Philadelphia is always a bit of a homecoming for Ian, who lived here for nearly four years at the beginning of the Nixon era. She relocated to be near her therapist.

"I came of age in New York, but I grew up in Philly," she says. "I started to write and make records in New York, but I really became a person in Philadelphia. It's always been incredibly supportive of me as a town."

One of the photographs in the book shows Ian backstage at the Academy of Music in the '70s with fellow headliner Billy Joel, greeting Bruce Springsteen and the late Ed Sciaky, the Philadelphia disc jockey who supported all their careers.

Memory can be a slippery thing for old folkies, so Ian, who now lives in Nashville, had to work hard to get her dates and facts straight. "I researched for three months," she says. "I went through all my old journals. I spent a lot of time Googling myself. It's a weird feeling to research yourself."

Revisiting parts of her life proved painful. "It's hard to write about being molested," she says, "and hard to write about being smacked in the head." The experience, she jokes, "threw me right back into therapy."

Society's Child ends on a positive note with Ian's 2003 marriage at Toronto's City Hall to her longtime partner, a woman she refers to in the book only as Pat. But the songwriter in Ian couldn't resist throwing in a coda, lyrics to a tongue-in-cheek ditty titled "My Autobiography." Here's the first verse:

I know you and I'll agree

What this world needs is a lot more me

Well, I have got the remedy

Gonna write my autobiography

I've led a fascinating life

Had a husband and a wife

But you will truly be amazed

at just how humble I have stayed

Everybody sing.