How singer Janis Joplin changed the blues (1968)

Vintage Janis Joplin

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Janis Joplin changing blues

by Guy Ripley – Montana Standard (Butte, MT) December 22, 1968

Nothing stays the same for very long — not the world, not the blues, not love, not a petite young Texas girl who had “such a pretty voice,” according to her mother.

Least of all she, who immigrated to the West Coast several years ago to live with the beatniks.

She felt like a “weirdo among fools,” back at Port Arthur, she says, so at 18, she left, and as a footloose youth she found herself in a lot of places, just looking around.

Janis Joplin round glasses

Janis in the Haight

The last was a crowded little place in San Francisco called the Haight. And now Janis Joplin, age 25, has met the cost of making it pay. She is one of the survivors of that street.

Most were there before the first hippie arrived, and Janis is still there, but according to more than one national magazine and most record critics, she has become the nation’s leading blues singer and composer.

And blues is what Janis Joplin is all about, because there’s not much “truth” left when you’ve known the feeling of Haight Street, the feeling of dirt heavy in and on all around, the sleepless ups and downs of the drug world, the feel and taste of fish and chips, the cheapest food on the street and the grease that darkens the newsprint of the paper they’re wrapped in, the several panhandlers and dope dealers squatting on the sidewalk in front of the shops…

There is no truth here, only frankness — and then if you survive, there is only a lingering hurt that has to howl once in a while, and the poverty of a human mind stripped to the barest essentials.

It’s a long, tough trip to a good San Francisco band for a girl with just a pretty voice, but Janis made it a little more than two years ago, with a band called Big Brother and the Holding Company. By that time, the pretty voice was gone, because the blues, done right, are something more than merely pretty.

Janis Joplin concert poster

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The Turtle Blues

One of her finest recordings to date is “The Turtle Blues,” written by herself and recorded against the background of a San Francisco bar. It is also perhaps her most controlled, rehearsed piece.

She and the ‘Frisco band, with the locomotive beat and drive they feel is needed to reach this generation, have brought the big hippy sound to the blues and made it work. In short, Janis Joplin has found the only thing left that would have worked for her, and the sound is totally her own.

“Without the music,” she says, “I might have destroyed myself. Now my feelings work for me.”

When she’s in front of an audience, she says, “I need them and they need me. I want to do it until there isn’t any more.”

One of her best numbers, “Ball and Chain,” is a distillation of the Haight Street frame of mind, and she does it in a way that convinces most of her friends that someday soon her vocal cords will give out.

“Why should I hold back now and sound mediocre, just so I can sound mediocre 20 years from now?”

To listen to “Ball and Chain” is to glimpse into the very private world of Janis Joplin, because that’s where her blues are, and her theory about music seems to be total involvement in whatever you’re doing.

Janis Joplin singing

This particular sound has blown the lid off the traditional sound of the blues, taken it from the glitter and satin world of Aretha Franklin and brought it back to the streets and the soul.

“Sittin’ by my window,” she begins, “lookin’ at the rain…” The beginning is easy enough, with that pretty voice peeping through the backup of one of “sumthin’ came along, grabbed a hold of it, an’ it felt like a ball and chain,” and then the Joplin blues begin to roar and tumble and moan out, over, under, and through the backup of one of the oldest ‘Frisco bands. And you know she’s talking to no one but you.

The audience

Joplin describes her reaction to an audience as the “rush that people get when they take heavy dope.”

During a live recording session at San Francisco’s Fillmore Auditorium, that involvement with her music kept her audience cheering wildly for encores until the wee hours. It had happened before that, and will happen again.

The last song on the flip side of that recording is “Ball and Chain.” It ends long after the band has quit, with Joplin on her own, right where she wants to be, and in front of thousands of fans, she ends the song with the imploring question, “Tell me, tell me, tell me why our love is a lie…”

The album is called “Cheap Thrills.” Janis Joplin and everyone else knows what it’s all about. It’s not confined to Haight Street. But no one but she has ever sung it quite so earnestly, with quite as much knowing.

ALSO SEE: How rock star Janis Joplin was found dead in her Hollywood home (1970)

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