Monday, April 26, 2010

Freaky Janis Joplin

By Fatu Judy Henderson

In our community she was considered a "...dirty little white girl trying to sing the blues"; scarred in the face, plain and unappealing. Southern Comfort and heroin coursed through her veins on a regular basis. She says she was not pretty and as a youth she definitely was not popular; taunted by words such as "freak" and "pig." In spite of these tormented beginnings no other female has had as much impact in the world of the White Rock and Roll movement as the outcast, Janis Joplin.

I was first exposed to Janis at the age of 16 while viewing a documentary which featured both Jimmie Hendrix and Janis Joplin and discussions of musicians who died before their time. What struck me first about her was that she was sweating; not politely but profusely. Julie Andrews she was not. Her face contorted in a grimace of pain, she held onto her mic like an alcoholic forcing the last drink from a bottle of cheap wine. Her hair was a mess and she looked like some wild thing crawled from the bush! I was both captivated and repulsed by her appearance. The image of women on stage had been shattered and shattered hard. There was no going back from here!

Then I saw that she was white but singing like Mother R. in the church. The influence of the greats like Bessie Smith; maybe a little Aretha and definitely Lead Belly could be heard in the way she arranged and belted that song, Bobbie McGee!" Like most blacks of that era, I was hyper-sensitive to the appropriation of African American Music: "... the Blues and Rock and Roll were ours. Yet here was something strange singing both like one born in the tradition. Something remorseful had followed her back from the ethers and forced itself through her mouth as music.

Even at that age, I knew that something in the world of music had changed. The influence of the Blues and Rock and Roll was shifting into the White American world through the Hippie Culture and was transforming into something new. Race relations in American music, after years of racism and shameful turmoil, would change. Gender relations in American music would, by necessity, have to change. Those were not necessarily negative things and resistance on anyone's part would be futile.

Janis Joplin became the first woman to breech the barriers of the rising Hard Rock genre which was dominated by white men. Performing with her own band, The Full Tilt Boogie Band, she shared the stage with such groups such as the Grateful Dead, Erik Anderson and the Band. While it is said that she blew her performance at Woodstock due to her heroin use and drunkenness, her image; sweaty and contorted, is now used as a poster front for the Woodstock generation.

Janis Joplin struggled with her self-image throughout her life. She never liked her voice nor her looks. Yet, many female rock artists such as Bette Midler and Stevie Nicks credit Janis for having a great impact on their music. "Freaky", she may have been at that time, but now over 30 years later, we know she was a trail blazer; a trend setter which none have successfully mimicked in the Women's Rock Music industry.

Janis Joplin died in 1970 at the age of 27 of what is considered an accidental overdose of heroin. Fearful, rebellious, defiant to the end; it was her humanness that many came to relate to. Her music is iconic and few have risen to match her stature in rock music.

Fatu Judy Henderson is an Indie Musician and lay ethno-musicologist specializing in West African and Native American music and culture. She has traveled to Africa and across the United States to learn the music and dance forms of various African and American Indigenous cultures. Fatu conducts classes in African and Native music throughout the United States and has gained recognition for her expertise in these tightly niched music categories.

Fatu is also the owner of Dragon Head Music and Productions; a company devoted to producing and promoting Inidie Artists as well as helping Indie Artists to learn to utilize internet marketing tools and strategies. Visit Fatu at her primary site at to view many of the strategies discussed in her articles.

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