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Freaky Janis Joplin

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In our community she was considered a “…dirty little white girl trying to sing the blues”; scared in the face, plain and unappealing.  Southern Comfort and heroin coursed  through her veins on a regular basis.  She says she was not pretty and as a youth, she definitely was not popular; taunted by words such as “freak” and “pig.” Inspite of these tormented beginnings no other female has had as much impact in the world of the White Rock and Roll movement as the outcast, Janis Joplin. 

I was first exposed to Janis  at the age of 16 while viewing a documentary which featured both Jimmie Hendrix and Janis Joplin and discussions of musicians who died before their time. What sruck me first about her was that she was sweating; not politely but profusely. Julie Andrews she was not.  Her face contorted in a grimace of pain, she held onto her mic like an alcoholic forcing the last drink from a bottle of cheap wine. Her hair was a mess and she looked like some wild thing crawled from the bush!  I was both captivated and repulsed by her appearance.  The image of women on stage had been shattered and shattered hard.  There was no going back from here!

Then I saw that she was white but singing like Mother R. in the church. The influence of  the greats like Bessie Smith; maybe a little Aretha and definitely Lead Belly could be heard in the way she arranged and belted that song, Bobbie McGee!”  Like most blacks of that era, I was hyper-sensitive to the appropriation of  African American Music: “…the Blues and Rock & Roll were ours. Yet here was  something strange singing both like one born in the tradition. Something remorseful had follwed her back from the ethers and forced itself through her mouth as music.

Even at that age, I knew that something in the world of music had changed. The influence of  the Blues and Rock & Roll  was shifting into the White American world through the Hippie Culture  and was transforming into something new. Race relations  in American music, after years of racism and shameful turmoil, would change.  Gender relations in American music would, by necessity, have to change. Those were not necessarily negative things and resistance on anyone’s part would be futile. 

Janis Joplin became the first woman to breech the barriers of the rising  Hard Rock  genre  which was dominated by white men.  Performing with her own band, The Full Tilt Boogie Band,  she shared the stage with such  groups such as the Grateful Dead, Erik Anderson and the Band.  While it is said tht she blew her performance at Woodstock due to her heroin use and drunkeness, her image; sweaty and contorted,  is now used as a poster front  for the Woodstock generation.

Janis Joplin struggled with her self-image throughout her life.  She never liked her voice nor  her looks.  Yet, many female rock artists such as Bette Midler and Stevie Nicks credit Janis for having a great impact on their music. “Freaky”,  she may have been at that time, but now over 30 years later, we know she was a trail blazer; a trend setter which none have successfully mimicked in the Women’s Rock Music industry. 

Janis Joplin  died in 1970 at the age of 27 of what is considered an accidental overdose of heroin.   Fearful,  rebellious, defiant to the end; it was her humanness that many came to relate to.  Her music is icon and few have risen to match her stature in rock music.

Janic Joplin image from:

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