Today, on what would have been Janis Joplin’s 73rd birthday, we remember her musical genius and her enduring cultural impact.
Coming of age in the late 1950s, Janis Joplin’s life (1943-1970) spanned the “beat” generation and the hippie era. While she is credited with being the first female rock star, had Janis lived longer, the broad range of her musical talent, and her insistence on living her way, would surely have brought many more accolades. Today, on what would have been her 73rd birthday, consider these three: Janis consistently topping the country charts; Janis as a defining figure of 1960s counterculture; and “Pearl,” Janis’s sobriquet for her inner self, as an early feminist figure.
Rock, Blues and Country?
In Buried Alive, biographer Myra Friedman writes that Janis entertained her high school friends by performing pitch perfect imitations of folk singer Jean Ritchie (1922-2015), and folk and blues vocalist Odetta (1930-2008), the voice of the Civil Rights Movement. Not surprisingly, the precocious Janis, already a local artist and painter, did not have an easy time in high school. A childhood friend, Jim Langdon, told Friedman that in their narrow-minded hometown of Port Arthur, Texas, Janis was an “oddball—or a freak.” Shortly after graduation, she high-tailed it to the beatnik enclave of Venice, California, where she could drop “out” and be “in.”
After returning to Texas in 1962, Janis began calling herself a beatnik, a label she would use to describe herself throughout her life. (Beatniks, she told a reporter in Brazil in 1970, are “older” than hippies.) That year also marked the first realization of Janis’s ambition; she began performing in Houston and Austin as a blues singer, her style heavily influenced by her favorite female performer, Bessie Smith (1894-1937), the Empress of the Blues.
While Janis eventually decided to be a rock star, in 1971, her version of Kris Kristofferson’s country song, “Me and Bobby McGee,” climbed to the top of the singles chart. Music critics speculated about what might have been—would Janis have crossed over to country and western? Anyone who harbors doubts should watch this YouTube video of a very young Janis Joplin:
In an interview in Amy Berg’s documentary, Little Girl Blue (2015), Kristofferson, a fellow Texan (whose career took off with Janis’s help), says that he did not know she planned to record the song. He recalled giving it to her shortly after writing it. In an intensely emotional moment, Kristofferson, who by all biographical accounts had once been in love with Janis, describes his surprise at hearing her rendition (with a female narrator) on the posthumously released album, “Pearl.”
Janis as a Counterculture Icon?
In D.A. Pennebaker’s footage of Janis at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, there is a cut to a shot of Mama Cass in the audience. Arguably the most famous member of the folk rock group, The Mamas and the Papas, Cass is overwhelmed by the newcomer’s rendition of “Ball and Chain.” Pennebaker’s repeated requests to film Janis after seeing her first performance at the festival was significant. A month before Monterey, his documentary, Dont Look Back, about Bob Dylan’s first British tour, had opened, and had quickly been declared a landmark film.
At a Fall 2015 New York City Writers Guild screening of Little Girl Blue, that drew upon Pennebaker’s footage of Janis, the two filmmakers appeared afterward to field audience questions. Pennebaker said that at Monterey, he knew while shooting Janis that he was capturing a performer on the verge of fame. Friedman describes Janis’s appearance that day as having “more energy than the rest of the entire festival.” Janis was a star before she ever cut a record. As for Monterey Pop itself, the biographer declares: “There was never another Monterey.”
While there had been many memorable counterculture music festivals before Monterey Pop, mostly in San Francisco, it marked the beginning of the Summer of Love, and the entry of the hippies, and their “flower children” philosophy, into mainstream culture. Janis was not just there—she was singled out by music critics who were universal in their praise of her. Janis’s breakout performance is inseparable from a defining moment in America’s music history, and from the Summer of Love that followed, with its outpouring of peaceful sentiment in gatherings across the country. Later that year, there would be another escalation of the war in Vietnam, and Father Berrigan’s destruction of draft records, but the memory remained in counterculture circles of a movement that held the promise of change, of “The Age of Aquarius.”
Was Janis a Feminist?
Friedman, who had been Janis’s public relations representative (and an employee of Janis’s legendary manager, Albert Grossman), recalls a 1970 conversation with her client about “Get It While You Can.” Janis expressed disappointment at the fact that the song was widely thought of as referring only to sex. After her death, it hit the top of the singles chart, and the title instantly became a hippie motto, in part because the Vietnam War cut short the lives of so many young men. Friedman’s reply to Janis was that the interpretation should not come as a surprise given her reputation for promiscuity—an undeserved one according to the biographer. Janis’s retort: “My father. . . He had a life of the mind. That’s what he wanted, and he got it while he could. Whatever’s for you. That’s what it oughta be.”
Janis’s consciousness-raising experience in Venice, California, came a year after the sale of the first birth control pill. Women’s fears of unwanted pregnancies were dispelled, yet for the vast majority of working and middle-class women, the values of the 1950s remained, as they did in the Joplin family. Part of Janis’s high school rebellion against what Friedman calls the “grim proprieties,” including acceptable lady-like behavior, was crossing the river into Louisiana with male friends, to drink and to visit the pool halls. At 19, after her return from Venice, resistance to those “proprieties” continued with Janis’s beatnik language and, one acquaintance remarked, her recently acquired sheepskin vest. Shearling was the harbinger of Janis’s hallmark feathers, a fashion statement but also a fashion snub.
Once Janis became a rock star, she occasionally picked up “pretty boys” for one-night stands. Friedman comments on Janis’s sensitivity to any criticism of her lifestyle, yet she also makes clear that she lived as she liked. “Janis’s friends took it for granted that she knew nothing of guilt,” Friedman writes, “nor are there many who think that drugs and liquor were catalysts for her sexual adventures.”
Once asked why she did not hire a female band member, Janis replied that she liked being the only woman on stage. While she was not a self-professed feminist, Janis’s frankness and the raw honesty of her art, the part of her this writer thinks of as “Pearl,” made her accessible, in stark contrast to the far more affected Grace Slick, to whom she was often compared. Janis embodied the early aims of the feminist movement, “the freedom to choose,” another turn of phrase too often misunderstood. It expresses the broad scope of women’s autonomy, not simply the goal of legal access to abortion.