40 Years Out: Janis Joplin’s Death
Forty years ago today, we learned of the death of Janis Joplin. She was one of the finest blues singers ever. The late 1960s counterculture, for all its “revolutionary” talk, still had a lot of old-fashioned values, as did the music. Joplin’s blues were torn from the souls of Howlin’ Wolf, Big Mama Thornton and Ma Rainey and as a result her music is timeless.
When I was a sophomore in Port Arthur, Texas, Janis Joplin visited my high school in her hometown. I’ve told this story before, but I was impressed by the down-to-earth, almost shy nature of this superstar who was idolized by kids with a background very much like her own. You can sense this big, fragile heart in Big Brother and the Holding Company’s version of “Piece Of My Heart” as well as on the definitive “Ball and Chain.”
Around that time, a lot of people in Port Arthur didn’t like Joplin because of her prominence in the counterculture. The venom got even stronger after her death, but I think that might have been the old “generation gap” at work. Today, Port Arthur has a little museum with a Janis Joplin exhibit as its centerpiece. She is prominently featured in most of the advertising for the museum, so it’s possible the hate died along with the people who carried it – or they are simply more interested in making a buck off Joplin’s great legend.
And what a legend – beginning with her electrifying 1967 performance at Monterey, to the muddy fields of Woodstock and finally to her death from an overdose, Janis Joplin managed to not only influence music but also make a powerful statement on the nature of female beauty, sexuality and women in general. Let’s remember her as a strong but gentle soul.