Heroes can be people who are intrinsically intertwined with our life, whom we know personally or people who influence us, uplift us, inspire and guide us from a distance through their work and powerful personality. To Janis Joplin, the ‘Empress of the Blues’ Bessie Smith was the second type of hero. Though Joplin never met Smith, she always felt an inarticulate connection and even went on to describe herself as the reincarnated Bessie Smith to her friends. In fact, there are a number of similarities between the two. Being the two most unique voices of the 20th century, both had a raspy texture to their vocal delivery. Both their songs exhibited unabashed sexuality, and both struggled in their personal lives.
During an interview in 1969 with the Hit Parader magazine, Joplin discussed the strong impact of Smith and other blues artists in shaping her own style: “Back in Port Arthur, I’d heard some Lead Belly records, and, well, if the blues syndrome is true, I guess it’s true about me…So I began listening to blues and folk music. I bought Bessie Smith and Odetta records, and one night, I was at this party and I did an imitation of Odetta. I’d never sung before, and I came out with this huge voice.”
Smith died in 1937 at the age of 43 in a road accident near Coahoma, Mississippi. Though initially a small and intimate funeral was arranged in Philadelphia, it had to be shifted to O.V. Catto Elks Lodge as her death stirred thousands of people who wanted to pay their respect. Her funeral was a grand one that involved a crowd of seven thousand and velvet-lined, gold-trimmed coffin. She was carried out and buried in Mount Lawn Cemetery, near Sharon Hill, without a headstone. Apparently, Jack Gee, Smith’s ex-husband, collected all her pending money and refused to buy her a headstone. He even pocketed the funds raised by Smith’s friends in Bessie Smith Memorial Concert that took place in New York and then vanished. For some unknown reason, even Smith’s family didn’t bother to get a headstone for her, and her grave was left without one for 35 years.
In August 1970, just two months before Joplin’s own death, she and Juanita Green, who worked in Smith’s house when she was younger and went on to become the president of the North Philadelphia chapter of the NAACP, pitched money to buy a proper headstone for Smith. For the epitaph, they chose the following line: “The Greatest Blues Singer in the World Will Never Stop Singing.”
Very few people get to pay respect to their heroes in a proper way and show gratitude for all they have received from these inspirational figures. But Joplin got that opportunity even though it was in Smith’s absence.