White woman in North American popular music in the early 1960's were expected to be one of a few types. There was the earnest folk music type with long hair who didn't wear very much make-up and sang very seriously about love, politics and social injustice. At the opposite end of the spectrum was the teeny bopper pop singer who could be seen on American Bandstand wondering who would take her to the prom or crying about the boy who broke her heart. As long as a woman agreed to play one of those roles and had a modicum of talent she could ride the back of the music industry up the pop charts.
Of course women didn't have to be like that, and as the decade progressed there were those who charted their own path instead of worrying about the path up the charts, but you'd have to look long and hard for them.This attitude has more to do with the nature of popular music than any sort of sexism as there has always seemed to be some sort of law against demonstrating real emotion while singing if you want to be on the hit parade. Like cotton candy, popular music has always been light and fluffy with little or no substance. It wasn't Elvis's sex appeal that was so scary when he burst on the scene, it was that his music stirred emotions, and even worse, he sang with emotion.
While that was all right for jazz and blues singers, it just wouldn't do for pop music, so all those rough edges had to be smoothed down, and the raw energy turned down. So popular music was scrubbed clean of as much of its "colour" as possible in order to make it palatable for as many people as possible. So when Janis Joplin came along sounding like Big Momma Thornton and fronting a band playing psychedelic blues it was unlike anything the majority of people had heard before. By the time she got to Woodstock in 1969 she was getting ready to release her I Got Dem Ol' Kozmic Blues Again Mama. For reasons that have always escaped me her performances at the festival weren't included in the movie or its soundtrack, so the Legacy Recordings two disc release Janis Joplin: The Woodstock Experience is like a forty year old mistake finally being corrected.
Disc one of the set is a reissue of I Got Dem Ol' Kozmic Blues Again Mamaand disc two is her complete performance from August 17th/69 at the Woodstock festival. The album and the gig marked a change for Joplin as they were the beginnings of her solo career. For her performance at the festival she took the chance of mixing material from her forthcoming album which people wouldn't know with old crowd favourites like "Ball And Chain", "Piece Of My Heart", and the Gershwin classic "Summertime". Some of her new material included "Try ( Just A Little Bit Harder)", Kozmic Blues", and her cover of the Bee Gees "To Love Somebody".
Now I've seen some footage of Janis Joplin singing live before, I think it was from the Monterey Pop Festival when she was with Big Brother And The Holding Company, and have heard plenty of studio recordings of her singing before, but nothing had prepared me for the rawness of what was on display when she went on stage and started singing that night. I've heard people describe her concerts as a lone victim being sucked dry by thousands of vampires because she opened herself up so wide and was so emotionally raw on stage. I don't know about that, but it was almost frightening to hear how much of herself she was pouring into each song that night. It was hard to believe that one person could to stand in front of an audience and bare her soul in that way.
When she sings "Piece Of My Heart", and she starts into inviting whoever to take another little piece of her heart, she sounds like she is pleading to be loved, by somebody, anybody, so intense is her offer of giving up her heart. In fact it almost feels like intruding upon something highly personal. She sounds so desperate to be loved, and so willing to put up with anything in exchange you forget you're listening to someone performing a song, but rather feel as if you are eavesdropping on her thoughts.
You might think that something like George Gershwins "Summertime", from his opera Porgy and Bess, would be a little less intense, but not the way Joplin sings it. Most people merely sing about the hope implied in the song's lyrics, and if it's done really well you'll feel some of the wistfulness of the singer as she hopes for her daughter's future. Listening to Joplin sing it and there's very little hope, more the anguish of telling someone you love a lie in order to preserve their hope. For what hope is their really for the daughter of slave that her life will be any different from her parents? Little to none. Somehow, without saying anything about the subject, Joplin is able to capture the emotional damage done by slavery to a person's heart and soul.
There are times when the sound system fails Joplin and her voice distorts, yet even on those occasions when you can't understand what she is singing, you can still feel what she is singing about. When you listen to this concert, listen to the timber of her voice and the slight catches in it as she becomes momentarily chocked by what she is trying to express. In the world of popular music where singers have long been discouraged from showing anything close to real emotion and lyrics are designed to say nothing of substance, Janis Joplin was an anomaly. She felt everything she was singing about, and only sung about those things important to her. In her you were able to hear the potential for music to be a catharsis for those listening as well as performing, for you could not come away unmoved after hearing her sing.
If you've never heard Janis Joplin sing, than Janis Joplin: The Woodstock Experienceoffers an amazing opportunity to experience her at the peak of her professional prowess. For the rest of us, this package is a reminder of what a truly unique and amazing performer she was. Just be careful she doesn't take a little piece of your heart.
(Originally posted August 2009)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.