Listen to this track by San Franciscan psychedelic blues band fronted by transplanted Texan R&B shouter Janis Joplin. It’s “Summertime”, a re-telling of the Gershwin-Heyward American songbook classic as featured on the band’s 1968 debut album Cheap Thrills.
The song is one of three cover versions on the record, and the one with the longest pedigree having been covered by many over the years since it was written in 1935 for the musical Porgy and Bess. That musical, and certainly this song, was a snapshot of American southern life through a very romanticized lens. Maybe this band covering this song is kind of an unexpected choice for a long-haired rock ‘n’ roll band like Big Brother & The Holding Company. The song had grown a sheen of respectability by the 1960s along with the jazz traditions out of which it came. But, when you think of where jazz, the blues and rock music comes from, and the idealistic nature of the counterculture, it really isn’t all that much of a leap. After all, George Gershwin was as fascinated by African-American folk culture as any white rock ‘n’ roll singer was by 1968.
But, I think this cover version is notable for something else, too when it comes to Big Brother frontwoman Janis Joplin. In many ways, this song was waiting for her to record it. Because its story is hers.
Before she wound her way to the West Coast rock scene, Janis Joplin grew up in Port Arthur Texas, a suburban oil town. There she attended church, singing in the choir, and finding a group of (mostly shady) friends with collections of blues records by Bessie Smith, Big Mama Thornton, Billie Holiday, and Ma Rainy among others. She was labelled early on as a misfit, persecuted and ostracised for her free spirit, lack of traditional good looks, her love of reading and art, and for her love of African-American culture from which she was otherwise culturally and socially separated during the years just before the Civil Rights Movement. She was a person out of time. Her own sense of womanhood was hard fought and won during a time and place when conformity, especially for women, was mandatory.
But, Janis Joplin had places to go that had nothing to do with where she had been born, and nothing to do with the expectations placed on her by all those around her. She was loud and outspoken during a time when women were meant to be demure, flying her freak-flag high before that was an accepted thing to do. But, before she would reach the center of the Haight-Ashbury Counterculture that drew her like a magnet, her options must have seemed limited in Port Arthur. She was still very young, and beginning to feel the tension between wanting the acceptance of her peers and her family, and wanting to embrace her need for raw and honest self-expression at the same time.
It’s this sense of displacement, and struggle to find a place in the world which fueled her drive as a singer. Her voice remains to be a singular one today, steeped in the blues, and yet not being in any way an imitation of what had come before in that tradition. She brings something very special to her performance on this song in particular, a standard of the form; a stand out among stand outs in her short but potent career. As old as this song is, and how many times it had been performed and recorded by the time she sang it, “Summertime” could have been her theme song, connected as it is to all of the opposing forces that seemed to roil inside of Janis Joplin as a person.
Her scratchy and feral voice is in full cry on this tune. But, there are also moments when her voice pushes through the brambles and into a clearing. We can hear the clarity of tone that had always been there when she sings “… you’re going to rise up singing …”. In the musical version, this song is a lullaby that appears a number of times during the play as a kind of ghostly theme that runs like a thread through the whole, connected to several characters. But in this version, it sounds like Joplin is singing this for herself as a sort of act of self-care. It is one of the most uplifting versions of the song for that reason. It’s full of melancholy, and even a kind of understated dread. But also at the same time it’s full of hope, too. This version of “Summertime”, a song that has been covered by so many before and since, stands as a landmark in her career just because it really seems to come from an honest place in the heart of a singer who lived every line of it, even though it had been written and popularized before she was born.
Janis Joplin’s tenure with Big Brother & The Holding Company would be short-lived after she had made a splash at the Monterrey Pop Festival in the summer of 1967, and when Albert Grossman took the group under his managerial wing. She would move on after the recording of Cheap Thrills, with a new band behind her, The Kozmic Blues Band. She’d be a part of another band after that in The Full Tilt Boogie Band, as well as deliver what many people consider to be her masterpiece in 1971’s Pearl. But, that record would be released posthumously when at the age of twenty-seven, Janis Joplin would succumb to a drug overdose alone in a hotel room in October of 1970.
Janis appeared on the Dick Cavett show that same year. On it, she tells Cavett of her plan to attend her high school reunion in August of that year, back to Port Arthur where her classmates had shunned her so thoroughly only ten years before. It was probably meant as an act of defiance on her part, or as a means of gaining the respect of those who once mocked her. But, it backfired. Janis was loud about her entrance, complete with rock star entourage, and the press got a hold of the story. They grilled her about her past as an ugly duckling, and a social outcast. When you watch the footage of the press conference, it is heartbreaking. All of her childhood pain about having few friends and being roundly misunderstood still hurt her. She was still that strange little girl inside, despite the accouterments of her rock goddess status by 1970.
To me, it wasn’t drugs alone that killed Janis Joplin. It was her inability to meet the standards of conformity placed on her when she needed the most support in finding her own identity as a young person, and the isolation she experienced as a result. This type of thing is still going on today, as bad as it ever was. Among other things, it makes me wonder how many Janis’ we’ve lost and are still to lose. But it also puts to mind the idea that the opposite of addiction is not sobriety, but rather a sense of being connected to others, of belonging, of not having to fight for love all of the time, but rather in finding it unconditionally in friends, lovers, and family.
To get an overall review of her career and life, I recommend watching this documentary about Janis Joplin.
For even more information still about Janis Joplin, check out janisjoplin.com