Two Worlds Collide: Erich Leinsdorf Meets Janis Joplin

The following post has been written by Kevin McBrien, one of 36 college students participating in the Library of Congress 2015 Junior Fellows Summer Intern Program. The post was originally published on the Library of Congress blog. McBrien graduated in May from California State University at Long Beach with a bachelor’s degree in music history and literature. He begins graduate school in the fall and hopes to become a teacher at the college level. Interning in the Library’s Music Division, he’s enjoyed valuable archival experience, particularly working with the music scores and photographs of musicians, orchestras and others.

Two Worlds Collide: Erich Leinsdorf Meets Janis Joplin
By Kevin McBrien, Library of Congress Junior Fellow

This summer, during my time working at the Library of Congress as part of the Junior Fellows Program, I have had the privilege of sorting and filing hundreds of photographs that are a part of the Music Iconography Collection. Housed in the Library’s Music Division, this collection contains publicity and press photographs of conductors, composers, opera singers, bands, orchestras, rock stars, concert halls and everything in between. Irving Lowens, who was employed as a music critic for the now-defunct Washington Star newspaper, donated many of these photos to the Library. Incidentally, he also worked in the Library’s Music Division from 1960 until 1978, serving as assistant head of what is now known as Reader Services.

Perhaps one of the more curious photos that I have encountered reveals a meeting in 1969 between two unlikely individuals: the blues rock singer Janis Joplin and the music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Erich Leinsdorf. Upon first glance I wondered, “Why would these two cultural icons, from seemingly opposite ends of the American art scene, have met together?” Curious, I conducted some research, and the results revealed a fascinating bridge between the worlds of classical and popular music.

Erich Leinsdorf and Janis Joplin at Tanglewood (Photograph by Whitestone Photo, 1969, Music Division, Library of Congress).

Erich Leinsdorf and Janis Joplin at Tanglewood (Photograph by Whitestone Photo, 1969, Music Division, Library of Congress).

In 1968, the late American composer Gunther Schuller suggested the idea for a “Contemporary Trends” concert series to be presented at Tanglewood, the summer music venue located in Lenox, Massachusetts. As head of Contemporary Music Activities at the time, he believed that it was “significant and necessary” to acknowledge the new developments that were occurring in popular music. Erich Leinsdorf, who was music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1962 to 1969, supported the idea with enthusiasm. Both Schuller and Leinsdorf had already established a Festival of Contemporary Music at Tanglewood, which programmed revolutionary works by George Crumb, Elliott Carter, Paul Fromm and other modern composers. However, the first series of popular music concerts in 1968 was rather conservative, featuring artists such as Judy Collins and the Modern Jazz Quartet, Ravi Shankar and The Association.

The next year, in the summer of 1969, the Contemporary Trends series better reflected the radically changing nature of American popular music. The lineup that summer included Iron Butterfly, Joni Mitchell, Ornette Coleman, Jefferson Airplane and The Who. Janis Joplin was chosen to headline the opening of the series, only weeks before her appearance at the legendary Woodstock Music Festival in August 1969.

On the evening of July 8, more than 7,000 people showed up at Tanglewood’s  Koussevitzky Music Shed to witness Joplin sing with her Kozmic Blues Band. (She sang on the first part of the program, and the second half featured the American rock band Orpheus). The concert series as a whole was controversial, with the locals complaining of the music’s ear-shattering volume and the rowdy juveniles that the artists attracted. One review from the Holyoke Transcript Telegram reported on the evening’s chaos: “Out of the darkness into a thunderous applause came the former Big Brother and the Holding Company’s lead singer, Miss Janis Joplin. After only ten minutes on stage, Miss Joplin left to complain about the state police and Shed officials who were trying to clear the isles.” Regardless, Joplin’s performance was well received, and the singer even performed two encores for the adoring crowd.

Unfortunately, there is almost no information on the actual encounter between Janis Joplin and Erich Leinsdorf that is shown in the photo. However, Joplin’s “hippie” apparel, which was a trademark of her stage appearances, suggests that the two must have met backstage sometime during the singer’s performance on July 8, 1969. In any case, this photograph is truly intriguing, capturing a little-known meeting between two musical legends of the 20th century. If for only a moment, this brief encounter managed to bridge the gap between the classical and popular genres, uniting the two artists through a common passion – music. All in all, this photograph is just one of the many fascinating pictorial treasures that can be found in the Music Iconography Collection at the Library of Congress.