Broadway theatergoers are getting an up-close-and-personal look at a rock icon who died too soon in A Night With Janis Joplin, featuring a sizzling performance by Mary Bridget Davies. The show was written by Randy Johnson with the cooperation of Joplin’s surviving siblings, Laura and Michael, all of whom were born and raised in Port Arthur, Texas. Laura, who was six years younger than Janis, idolized her sister and wrote the biography Love, Janis before joining her brother in managing the Janis Joplin Estate. At Broadway.com’s request, Laura Joplin looked back to childhood for examples of her big sister’s willingness to stand up for the underdog, the origins of her bluesy voice and much more.
My sister, Janis Joplin, and I grew up in the racially segregated, working-class, oil-refining town of Port Arthur, Texas. The three high schools included one for whites, Thomas Jefferson; one for white Catholics, Bishop Byrne; and one for African-Americans, Lincoln. The white school opened a modern glass and steel building in 1960, the year Janis graduated. The year I graduated, 1967, Martin Luther King’s threats to march through town forced the school board to begin a slow process of racial integration with 10 African-American students joining TJ’s class of nearly 3,000 whites.
Our parents, Seth and Dorothy Joplin, were not native to the area and shunned crayfish festivals, frog gigging and Protestant tent revivals in favor of weekly trips to the library, art lessons, classical music and dinner table debates of current events. They expected their children (including our brother, Michael) to form opinions and stand up for our choices. Time Magazine, Fortune and The New Yorker brought the big city world to our provincial lives.
When Janis’s tenth grade social studies class discussed news articles about racial integration, her strong support for the value of integration provoked a social backlash from several cocky bullies who swarmed around her calling, “n***er-lover” as she walked to her next class. Janis now realized that opinions were held at a price.
With a personality built on never giving in, Janis did not actively court her classmates’ disapproval, but something about her willingness to express her personal values put her at odds with an aggressively vocal cohort—the high school football team. By the last few months of her senior year, she was powerless and traumatized enough that she only attended the essential classes needed to graduate.
During those three high school years, Janis developed a passion for the African-American art of Modigliani, the sounds of Zydeco and R&B played in the Louisiana night clubs 20 miles away, an interest in the religion of voodoo shared with her by our maid, Theresa, and a lifelong love of the songs of African-American women singers such as Odetta, Nina Simone, Mahalia Jackson, Pearl Bailey and Bessie Smith, many of whom are represented in A Night With Janis Joplin.
Her curiosity was shared by a tight group of intellectual male friends, guys who accepted her as an equal member of their group. Janis was never like the girls they dated. Within this group Janis gained the social membership that every adolescent needs in order to let her inner curiosity develop into active exploration. Together they read the 1950s beatnik literature and listened seriously to jazz and folk music. They collectively fantasized about adopting Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” lifestyle after high school.
The five frequently drove the long summer nights, sharing a six-pack of beer and listening to the great radio station broadcasting underground music from across the Texas border in Laredo, Mexico. Enthusiastically, Janis belted out an accompaniment to one of the tunes. “Janis, you can really sing,” they said, and she discovered she had a gift.
Our parents recognized that after high school she could no longer live peaceably in Port Arthur. With their support, she moved to Los Angeles to live with Mother’s sister. A few months later, Janis began setting her own trajectory. Over the next 10 years she moved between Venice Beach in Los Angeles, North Beach in San Francisco, the University of Texas area of Austin, the East Village in New York and Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco.
In every location, Janis formed friendships around roots music, explored different singing traditions, played in various musical groups and entered singing contests. For years, her signature tune was a Bessie Smith number, “Black Mountain,” describing a community where people are as mean as they can be, “they uses gunpowder, just to sweeten up their tea.”
Around 1964, Janis had her first black-and-white glossy photos taken so she could promote herself for gigs. She accompanied herself on Autoharp at first, and then 12-string guitar and finally a six-string Yamaha. But she was at her best when she let others do the playing and she was free to close her eyes and sink into the deep feelings in the tunes she favored.
In 1966, an Austin friend, Chet Helms, introduced her to Big Brother and the Holding Company, a band in search of a singer. Joining them and the peace and love social movement in Haight-Ashbury, Janis discovered a social acceptance beyond her dreams. Everywhere she went she brought along the singers and the tunes she listened to, songwriting rhythms she practiced and singing styles she emulated.
In her last years of life, Janis was asked how she wanted to be remembered. She replied, “I want to be the first black-white person.” The songs she performed and recorded she frequently first heard from great African American writers and performers, such as Odetta’s “Down On Me,” Nina Simone’s “Little Girl Blue” and the Broadway musical number from Porgy and Bess, “Summertime.” Janis’ singing style married both the sounds she learned and her deepest feelings to the broad expressive power in her voice.