To be a high school beatnik in 1960 in Port Arthur, Tex. is to set yourself up for a rough time. But Janis Joplin had made up her mind that she was going to live life her way, damn the small-minded. She discovered the blues at a time when blacks and whites couldn’t eat at the same restaurants in Texas. She read Kerouac and Ferlinghetti in a blue collar town that looked at non-required reading with suspicion. “Men liked to pick on Janis,” says Powell St. John, her former bandmate in the Waller Creek Boys.
“She Dares To Be Different” was the headline of the story written about Janis in 1962, when she was an autoharp-toting folk singer at the University of Texas in Austin. The “enviously unrestrained” 19-year-old filled jeans and went barefoot when other coeds wore dresses or skirts and blouses. But her standing out came at a steep price, with the unrelentless bullying scarring her, St. John said. “You’re better than them,” he told her, when she cried after a fraternity named her “Ugliest Man On Campus.” Then why are they winning?
Singing was her sanctuary. People loved to hear Janis belt out those old folk songs. She was born with a powerful voice that could take her where her instincts led, but didn’t find out until she was about 16 and discovered 1920’s blues queen Bessie Smith. “Love oh love oh careless love,” Janis harmonized and then took the lead on “You’ve made me break a many true vow, then you set my very soul on fire.” Janis’s friends were knocked out. “You sing as good as that lady on the record!”
At that moment her life became about something bigger than P.A.
She displayed advanced intelligence early, skipping second grade, but Janis was a bored C student as a teenager. Her real education came through her small circle of fellow freaks, including Grant Lyons, a record collector nerd who turned her onto Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie. From there she found Odetta and Bessie and Big Mama Thornton and Jean Ritchie. Appalachian folklorist singer Ritchie had a repertoire of over 300 songs and Joplin set out to learn every one.
“Whenever Lanny (banjoist Wiggins) and I would suggest a song, Janis would know two others just like it,” St. John said of the earliest get-togethers of Joplin’s first band. “She had done her homework.”
During Joplin’s Port Arthur years, there were frequent 30-mile trips to Vinton, LA, where you could drink at 18 (if they even checked ID). This is where Janis developed her din-knifing cackle. Janis and her friends would party to Jerry LaCroix and the Counts at Buster’s or Lou Ann’s, getting a crash course in soulful American music. A proximity to Louisiana and the Gulf Coast ensured that the Golden Triangle (Beaumont-Orange-Port Arthur) would have a steady supply of roots-reared musicians. But the folk scene was non-existent.
This is where Austin (always) comes in. After a secret overnight trip to the mythical liberal outpost, and finding a song-swap at “the Ghetto,” at 28th and Nueces Street, still going at 4 a.m., Janis decided to enroll at UT. She had found her people in Texas. And the state capital had never seen, or heard, anything like Janis.
“I fell in love with her right away,” says St. John, who played harmonica in the Waller Creek Boys and asked Janis to join. They had a fling, but Janis had lots of them. Male and female. “She was a great singer,” he says. “She understood the finer points of getting a song across.” The Wallers started out singing at the Chuckwagon in the Student Union, then followed professor Bill C. Malone’s bluegrass outfit to Threadgill’s and made that joint on far North Lamar the place to be on Wednesdays. As Pat Sharpe wrote in that 1962 profile in the Daily Texan: “Janis sings with a certain spontaneity and gusto that cultivated voices sometimes find difficult to capture.”
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Love made Janis different, she was a junkie for it- giving and receiving. That’s why she stayed so close to her parents, even though they fought bitterly as she became a young woman. She knew their love was real, uninfluenced by who she had become.
“Dear Family,” starts a letter read aloud in the fine 2015 documentary Janis Joplin: Little Girl Blue, by Amy Berg. “After you reach a certain level of talent- and quite a few have that talent- the deciding factor is ambition. Or as I see it, how much you really need. Need to be loved and need to be proud of yourself. I guess that’s what ambition is. It’s not a depraved quest for money. Maybe it’s for love.”
An outcast addicted to adulation, Janis challenged your love. Tried to push you away, then pulled you closer. When she was off the stage, which could be anywhere public to Janis, she was usually out of place. But she wasn’t going to hold back for anyone.
“She was in touch with her emotions and who she was in a way that no one I knew was in touch with,” David Getz, her former drummer in Big Brother and the Holding Company, said in Little Girl Blue. He choked back tears as he recalled Oct. 4, 1970 when he was told the singer died from a heroin overdose. “That’s the price you pay for doing that art on that level.”
Courage and insecurity were the oversized lenses through which Janis saw the world, at least from the last half of her 27 years. The rebel side came at about age 14, when Janis realized she’d never be one of the pretty girls, the popular girls at Thomas Jefferson High School. Before that, she’d lived a fairly idyllic life, according to all the bios. Her parents met in Amarillo in 1932 and relocated to Port Arthur in the early ‘40s when Seth Joplin got a job as an engineer for Texaco. She had a younger sister Laura and younger brother Michael.
Joplin did not look back fondly on her days growing up in the sulphur-smelling city of 66,600, whose slogan was “We Oil the World.” She built a tough exterior on her past.
Janis was “from good pioneer stock” she’d say, explaining her ability to handle drugs and alcohol. But she was easily pushed to the emotional breaking point. It was that mix of strength and vulnerability that came through in her singing. The first female rock star, her performances were spirit revivals, with pain and possession doing a cathartic dance. Until the punk explosion of the ‘70s, no white singer was so brilliantly unhappy. Who else could blow the doors off a concert hall, then write a letter to her parents, and then shoot up drugs?
The Janis Joplin tragic flameout story has been told, in several books and on the screen. We know about her substance abuse problems and we’ve seen her sensational breakout at Monterrey in ’67, as she donned gold lame’ and transformed into “Pearl.”
But nobody really talks about the show in Austin on March 13, 1966, when Janis Joplin stood next to her future. She came to the Methodist Student Center as a folk/blues singer and left with a soul full of rock n’ roll. Three months later, she was living in San Francisco as the lead singer of Big Brother and the Holding Company.
That show in Austin, 50 years ago this week, was the only time Joplin shared the stage with the 13th Floor Elevators, who were two months from the national release of debut single “You’re Gonna Miss Me.” Also on the bill, organized by Tary Owens as a benefit for aging East Austin fiddler Teodar “Papa T” Jackson, were country blues icons Mance Lipscomb and Bill Neely, piano great Robert Shaw and Joplin’s former Waller Creek Boys St. John and Wiggins.
This was during a long sober period for Janis- who’d been bused home from San Francisco as an 88-lb speedfreak in May ’65- and she was wearing a black dress and high heels, with her hair in a bun. With the help of Austin American Statesman music columnist Jim Langdon, who called her “the best white blues singer in America,” Joplin had made her performance return to Austin the weekend before at the Eleventh Door. At the Papa T benefit, she accompanied herself on guitar and belted four blues songs- “Codine,” “I Ain’t Gonna Worry,” “Going Down to Brownsville” and “Turtle Blues”- to great response from the 400 or so who’d paid $1 per ticket. Then Janis watched Roky Erickson and the 13th Floor Elevators levitate the crowd.
Taking his vocal cues from Little Richard and Buddy Holly, Erickson was a shrieker, who also had a tender, melodic touch. The Elevators were the best rock band around, also coming from folk roots as the Lingsmen. It was Tary Owens, Janis’s former TJ High classmate, who introduced Roky to Tommy Hall and his band. With a jug-blowing guru, they had turned on to LSD (which was still legal at the time) and expanded the sounds in their head to become the first band called “psychedelic.”
St. John says, “Janis took a long, hard look at Roky. His energy.” There was even talk that she might join the Elevators as a “chick backup singer,” but after everyone came down that idea was ditched.
Janis played one more concert in town as a blues singer, with Shaw at the “Barrelhouse and Blues” show at the Texas Union Ballroom on May 5, 1966. But soon after, Chet Helms, whom she’d hitchhiked to S.F. with in 1963, beckoned her to return to the Bay Area. In the year since Greyhound had an intervention for Janis, Helms and his Family Dog company started booking the earliest hippie concerts in S. F. at the Avalon Ballroom. He had started managing a band he named Big Brother and the Holding Company and they wanted Joplin to be the singer. Anybody who’d ever heard Janis sing, and she’d been a bit of a coffeehouse star during her ’63-’65 years in the Bay Area, knew her voice was perfect for the new, free-form kind of rock and roll. She had, no doubt, been thinking the same thing when she watched Roky Erickson.
But Janis was terrified of getting back into the drug scene of California. She had been doing well, going back to school at Lamar University to study anthropology. Doing her singing on weekends. Her family cursed Langdon for encouraging Janis to pursue a music career.
It didn’t take much arm-twisting, though. Janis was ready to enter the rock arena.
She told her family she was going to Austin for a few days, but on June 6, 1966, the day she officially joined Big Brother, she sent them a letter saying she was actually in S.F. “My old friend Chet is now ‘Mr. Big’ in San Francisco,” she wrote. “And the whole town has gone rock n’ roll.”
Janis Joplin became a big star, but three years after Monterrey, she was dead. Her last appearance in Austin was at a birthday party for Kenneth Threadgill at the Party Barn in Oak Hill in July 1970. She sang a song she’d just recorded called “Me and Bobby McGee” and another Kris Kristofferson song “Sunday Morning Coming Down.” An expected crowd of 500 grew to 5,000 when word got out that Janis was in town and had planned to attend.
Earlier in 1970, Joplin heard that Bessie Smith, her earliest inspiration, did not have a gravestone. Joplin paid for one, with the inscription reading, “The Greatest Blues Singer In the World Will Never Stop Singing.”
Janis Joplin is one of 42 music pioneers profiled in “All Over the Map: True Heroes of Texas Music” (University of North Texas Press)