In 1963 there were a lot of things you’d expect a young white girl from Texas to be. An aficionado on the finer moments of blues history was not necessarily one of them. But, then again, Janis Joplin really was one of a kind, from the very beginning.
We’re reflecting on the powerhouse singer’s esteemed education and listening back to a 20-year-old Joplin as she commands a small stage in San Francisco in 1963. The audio below captures the singer regaling her audience with some of the most authentic and adoring homages to America’s finest blues singers.
Before leaving her native Texas for San Francisco and the counter-culture movement that was bubbling away, her reputation on her university campus was for being a free-spirited musician. She was a wildly creative soul who walked about campus emboldened by the possibilities of the decade and the belief in herself. Or as campus newspaper, The Daily Texan, put it, “She Dares to Be Different.”
The article continued: “She goes barefooted when she feels like it, wears Levis to class because they’re more comfortable, and carries her autoharp with her everywhere she goes so that in case she gets the urge to break into song, it will be handy. Her name is Janis Joplin.” Quite the esteem heaped upon such young shoulders but Joplin took it, like she did everything else that was thrown at her, in her stride.
At the university, Joplin continued to portray an image of the rebellious troubadour and the energised artist. Half blues singer, half beat poet, she recorded her first song ‘What Good Can Drinkin’ Do’ on tape in December 1962 at the home of a fellow student. It would be an inspirational moment for the young singer and begin a career that, although far too short, would provide some glittering moments.
Joplin left Texas in January 1963 to “just to get away,” she said, before adding: “Because my head was in a much different place”. Joplin began hitchhiking with her friend Chet Helms in a bid to reach North Beach, San Francisco, the new hub of the ludicrously hip. When she arrived, she soon immersed herself in the ‘beat culture’ and became enamoured with the creative hive that was seemingly buzzing with opportunity.
One such opportunity afforded to Joplin, and many other singers of the time, were coffee shops. These smoky hangouts were the refuge of the scene and provided not only a place to meet but a place to share songs. What with it being the sixties, that meant everybody was encouraged to share their expression.
Joplin began to find spots during 1963 and, below, we’re bringing you one such performance as Janis gives the small and intimate crowd a little lesson in the best blues musicians to ever walk the earth. Picking obscurities and folkloric ditties, Joplin wowed the Coffee Gallery crowd with not just her knowledge but her powerful delivery, and we’re lucky enough to have the tape below.
“This a song a lot of blues singers sing,” she says following a rousing rendition of ‘Daddy, Daddy, Daddy’. Introducing the San Franciscan crowd to another obscure number and upping their musical education. “The version I do was recorded by Lonnie Johnson back in the ’20s. He’s an old-time blues singer who never achieved much prominence but he’s still very good,” before launching into the charming performance of ‘Careless Love’.
The sad ending for Janis Joplin is made even sadder with the knowledge of her authenticity and commitment to her work. Joplin felt every single note of what she sang and she made sure she learned how to commit from the masters. She believed in the power of music and judging by this recording she was able to deliver any song’s message with her own true voice.
It wouldn’t be long before she was taking that same fire from the small coffee shops on to huge stages and wowing crowds with her impassioned performances and honest reflections. Sadly, it would all come to an all-to-quick end as Joplin died following a heroin overdose in October 1970.
Listen below to the 1963 recording of Janis Joplin giving the people of San Francisco a lesson on the blues.
‘Leaving’ This Morning (K.C. Blues)’
‘Daddy, Daddy, Daddy’
‘Black Mountain Blues’