Janis Joplin and Her Personal Blues

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Janis Joplin and Her Personal Blues

Janis Joplin, who has influenced modern R&B, soul, rock, and pop music, was a cultural icon for many generations. She synthesized many important musical and cultural traditions, but the most important of them was blues. Janis Joplin was one of the best female blues performers who changed the male domination in blues and became a feminist icon after her early death. Accordingly, Janis Joplin’s manner of performance combined the old tradition of improvisation as well as personal motives of loneliness, and also formed a basis for the development of the female soul.

Janis Joplin firstly sang the blues and struck the listeners with perfect copy of Odette vocal style in Louisiana. She quickly began to acquire the skills of professional blues singer, performing from time to time on stage in some roadside clubs. Janis did not know any musical notation, but she had a unique sensibility which allowed her to absorb blues phraseology, rhythmic and emotional spectrum in the most possible nuances (Hughes, 2011). Janis Joplin attended the school of Thomas Jefferson in 1960 (Hughes, 2011). That is why the woman had a deep knowledge of the music, and resolved to develop them to the limit of her talent. The Louisiana blues became a perfect backdrop for the development of the local counterculture to impose the interest in the philosophy of the Beat Generation on teenagers.

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Before she expressed herself to the whole country, Janis Joplin made a desperate attempt to return to her former life and entered the University of Texas at Austin. However, because of the abuse of local people, who did not like hippies, she had to quit school. After that, she sang for some time in the clubs of San Francisco where she met many interesting people from the hippie hangouts. In summer 1960, Janice held in Venice (Los Angeles district) among the Beat members and then returned to Texas. As recalled by John Langdon, one of her youth friends, the impact of the members was primarily on her life style (Hughes, 2011). As for her singing, since the time of being a regular speaker at the university stage, she demonstrated the expressive three-octave diapason. Her first own song, a soundtrack for a film, was the blues “What Good Can Drinking Do,” decorated in the style of Bessie Smith. Even in this song, Janis Joplin clearly demonstrated the depth of her vocal, and especially the typical blues theme of loneliness.

Indeed, all her life Joplin suffered from the lack of understanding: first she had an inferiority complex regarding her weight, and then she could not reconcile herself to the lack of understanding from the beloved people. Accordingly, she was a real ballad blues singer because she expressed “anxieties, frustrations, hopes, or resignation” (Oliver, 1986, p. 243). For instance, in her most melancholic song “Summertime,” (Janis, 2011) performed in her special raucous manner, Janis hoped that “one of these mornings, you’re gonna rise, rise up singing.” She transformed all her life experience, fears, and hopes in this song, as the early blues singers expressed their hopes in better future.

In 1966, Chet Helms invited her to the newly formed group “Big Brother & the Holding Company” (Hughes, 2011). As a manager of the group, he decided to follow the example of “Jefferson Airplane” where the highlight was a female vocal. Joplin doubted for long time whether she should return to the stage, but in the end she became determined to sing further. The group was impressed by the leadership of Columbia Records so much that they released their first album in 1967. It was a mix of blues, rock, and folk music with “democratic, acoustic, and open to everyone” (Titton, 1993, p. 221). The album became very popular and quickly rose to the top of the national charts. As for Janis Joplin herself, she recently received the status of a national celebrity.

Janis Joplin’s manner fully reproduced the main blues themes, but she was still white singer and earned thousands of dollars per night. Many critics called her “a good primitive blues singer” (Rodnitzky, 1977); however, she ignored these remarks and continued to develop her special style of singing. She believed that emotion must be expressed through music, so “Joplin’s blues erased her personal suffering” (Rodnitzky, 1977). Moreover, with her music well as with taking drugs, she virtually tried to escape from reality. The main motives of her songs were connected with friends, lack of understanding, freedom, and love. As for love, it was really special theme for her as well as for many blues performers; nevertheless, it was an unrequited love that she sang about. In her lyrics to “Kozmic Blues,” there are such words, “don’t expect any answers, dear, for I know that they don’t come with age” (Janis, 2009a). The words are as paradoxical as Janis Joplin’s personality, but at least they are sincere and open for everyone just as blues.

Despite this, the main thing in Joplin’s performances was her unique and often very expressive manner. In Monterey, the audience was absolutely shocked that the white woman performed songs so freely and expressively that it looked like a shamanic ritual. It was blues-base pop music with “loud, heavily amplified, and augmented with sound-distorting devices” (Oliver, 1986, p. 247). Janis Joplin mumbled, shouted, and repeated the same words; thus, her manner was similar to early blues African performances. Moreover, her style was in trend of psychedelic rock, so it could be determined as psychedelically form of blues on the verge of rational and irrational, permitted and prohibited.

The turning point in the biography of Janis Joplin was the performance of “Big Brother & the Holding Company” on the Pop Festival in Monterey. The concert was organized specifically to director D. A. Pennebaker, and was later made as a separate movie “Monterey Pop.” According to rock critic Lucy O’Brien, Joplin’s performance was characterized by the exciting spontaneity and exuded powerful charge of energy (Hughes, 2011). The audience was astonished because it has never seen such shows, especially when a white singer behaved in such uncontrolled way on the stage. What was especially important for her performances is that they were very feminine, full of sexual energy and power. On the other hand, Janis tried to erase the patriarchal order because her music had no clear distinction between male and female. Whitley (2000) mentioned that within rock culture “women were equally valued for their looks, as evidenced by the ‘goddess’ cult” (p. 51). Hence, Janis Joplin was the first among the goddesses, and it seemed that she finally started to look like Odetta, Billie Holiday or Bessie Smith.

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Despite the success, the admiration of fans and other musicians, Janice still did not feel important for society. The search for love, which left her in hugs of dangerous men and women, made her even more miserable. The Southern Comfort, amphetamines and heroin, syringes became the main occupation for Janis Joplin. Besides, she was disappointed in men and love as well, so it was perfectly reflected in her song “Piece of My Heart” (Joplin, 2009b). It started from “Didn’t I make you feel like you were the only man?” and then moved to “break another little bit of my heart now, darling.” This song sounds like typical rock from the 1960s, but Joplin’s manner and lyrics completely reflect the mood of blues. Her condition worsened even more after the death of Jimi Hendrix from an overdose of sleeping pills on September 18, 1970. Following the announcement of his death, Janis said, “God, do not make me the next” (Hughes, 2011). Unfortunately, she died at the same age in the center of her fame and life as well. Her last album “Pearl” that was released in 1971 became the most balanced and organic work of Janis Joplin (Whiteley, 2000, p. 64). It reflected the increased vocal skills, honed in arrangements combining the old emotional and effective restraint. The album is considered to be a model for female blues of all times.

Therefore, Janis Joplin was a unique singer who proved that blues music is not only for men and Afro-Americans. During her short career, she became an icon for many people, and her unique manner of performance combined both of early blues, rock, and female soul. She tried to express her loneliness with blues, which was a result of her misunderstanding with parents, friends, and especially the men. Janis released only four albums, but has influenced many generations of singers, being a real blues star even today.