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American Music from A to Z in the NLS Music Collection: J—Janis Joplin

On October 4, 1970, a member of the ’27 Club’ was admitted. The ’27 Club’ is an informal list of rock and roll icons who died when they reached the age of 27, among them Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, and Robert Johnson. Janis Joplin died in a hotel room following a history of heroin addiction. The blues singer who blazed through her short life broke a lot of hearts when she passed away.

She came on the scene during a jaw-dropping performance at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, singing with Big Brother and the Holding Company. Even on film, her charisma and energy exhibits an electrifying presence.  From this small-framed female, a voice like no other was belting out the blues, and with no apologies.

Born in a coastal Texas town, Port Arthur, Janis grew up middle class with a mother who cleaned the house on Saturday mornings with her children helping. She had a day job as a registrar at a business college. Her father was employed by Texaco as an engineer. On these Saturday mornings, for inspiration, her mother would put on favorite albums of musicals to make the work go by quickly.

But you’re usually poor to sing the blues, right? Janis wasn’t poor, she was middle class, but being bullied at school because of her weight and acne, she found her own group to hang out with, outsiders like herself. Someone had some albums by Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, and Lead Belly that led to her music education.

Janis Joplin sitting on a piano stool, smiling, with a beverage in her hand.

In 1963, she left Texas for San Francisco. The good thing was she was in a new creative environment that welcomed artists and open-minded thinkers; the bad thing was, it was also rife with many drugs, especially heroin. In 1965, her friends convinced her to return to Port Arthur, mostly to get out of the debilitating setting. She was 88 pounds, and even as a small woman, that was underweight. She returned to college and received mental health counseling. But she could not reconcile the idea that for her happiness, singing what she wanted and how she wanted to sing it, would be possible without access to drugs. In 1966, the group Big Brother and the Holding Company was looking for a blues singer. Their manager Chet Helms, who had accompanied her on the first trip to San Francisco, sent someone to bring her back for a try-out with the band. The combination of band/singer worked. She sang a number of ‘covers’ with Big Brother on the album, titled Cheap Thrills, which were well-received. Fans still enjoy her takes on “Piece of My Heart,”  “Ball and Chain,” and “Summertime.”

Janis and Big Brother played clubs in San Francisco, the Fillmore West, the Hollywood Bowl and other clubs on the west coast. Their album was released shortly after the Monterey Pop Festival. Janis was attaining fame, sang lead vocals, and had earned a solo byline; ‘featuring Janis Joplin.’ One of the more unusual gigs they had was a spot on a show called This Morning, hosted by Dick Cavett. I’m not sure who booked them, but having Big Brother and Janis on a daytime talk show is a bit difficult for me to imagine. But, a gig is a gig.

Ultimately she split with Big Brother and pursued a solo career, singing what she wanted and how she wanted to sing it. She performed at Woodstock at 2:00 a.m. on August 17, 1969. She arrived very early before her scheduled performance and drank and partied before she went on stage. But Pete Townshend from the British rock group The Who reported, “She had been amazing at Monterey, but tonight she wasn’t at her best, due, probably, to the long delay, and probably, too, to the amount of booze and heroin she’d consumed while she waited. But even Janis on an off-night was incredible.”

Her final album, Pearl, released in 1971 after her death became the biggest selling album of her career. Me and Bobby McGee is a classic, delivered in a story-telling style. After her death, many fellow artists released tributes to her. It was a personal loss for the community.

I’ll close with a quote from Janis; “Don’t compromise yourself. You are all you’ve got.”

And she didn’t.

[Image from LOOK - Job 68-3725 titled Big Brother and the Holding Co.]

Janis Joplin on stage singing with a microphone in hand.

Listed below are some titles from the NLS Music Section and NLS Talking Book collection. Please note that all materials listed below are also available to borrow by mail, not only through BARD.

Please contact the Music Section to borrow talking books on digital cartridge or to borrow hard copies of braille music. Call us at 1-800-424-8567, ext. 2, or e-mail us at [email protected]

If you are new to BARD, you may find the following links helpful: Braille and Audio Reading Download (BARD) and BARD Access.

NLS Music Section

Audio Music Appreciation/Instruction

Janis Joplin (DBM00899)

Brown, Bill. Guitar Course 2. Includes lesson on Me and Bobby McGee (DBM03276)


Beloff, Liz. The Daily Ukulele: 365 Songs for Better Living (BRM35979)

Aebersold, Jamey. Blues in All Keys: for all Instruments. (BRM37725)

Talking Book Collection

Friedman, Myra. Buried Alive: the biography of Janis Joplin. (DBC05470)

George-Warren, Holly. Janis: Her Life and Music (DB 97256)

Angel, Ann. Janis Joplin: Rise Up Singing (DB 73764)

Joplin, Laura. Love, Janis. (May be available only for download) (DB 36139)

Sounes, Howard. 27: A History of the 27 Club Through the Lives of Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain, and Amy Winehouse. (DB 107331)

Song Stories: Woody Guthrie’s “Dust Bowl Ballads”

Born on July 14, 1912, Woody Guthrie earned the nickname “The Dust Bowl Troubadour” with the 1940 release of “Dust Bowl Ballads.” In this week’s NLS Music Notes blog post, learn more about the most successful album of Guthrie’s career and how it influenced a new generation of artists.

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American Composers and Musicians from A-Z: X-Z (Part 2 – “Those We Missed”)

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Rock On! “Stairway to Heaven” Turns 50

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