Janis Joplin on Music, Emotion, and the Courage to Be Oneself: A 1968 Conversation with Studs Terkel
“You gotta be able to act a little, feel a little, think a little.”
By Maria Popova
In the fall of 1945, a month after WWII ended, the great author, historian, and broadcasting pioneer Studs Terkel (May 16, 1912–October 31, 2008) began hosting an hourlong weekly radio program called The Wax Museum. Well before the phrase “disc jockey” entered the vernacular, he became one. Over the months that followed, his initially tiny audience not only grew but, to Terkel’s own surprise, transcended the usual boundary of public radio listeners — he soon began receiving fan mail from steelworkers and truck drivers and waitresses, people touched by his sincere love of music and the generosity with which he shared it. For forty-five years, Terkel filled the airwaves with an uncommon and enchanting mix of oral histories celebrating these ordinary people and interviews with some of the greatest musicians of the twentieth century.
Terkel’s previously unpublished interviews are collected in And They All Sang: Adventures of an Eclectic Disc Jockey (public library) — a trove of lively and insightful conversations with such legendary musicians as Louis Armstrong, Bob Dylan, Leonard Bernstein, and Woody Guthrie. Among them is a 1968 interview with 25-year-old Janis Joplin, who had made her debut only a year earlier and had already established herself as, in Terkel’s words, “the most popular of all the young white blues singers of the late sixties.”
At the time we spoke, I had slight reservations about her as a singer of blues, but nonetheless, seeing her on the stage, the powerful animal quality that she had obviously registered with the young came through.
The conversation begins with Joplin’s influences, among whom were the gospel legends Mahalia Jackson and Big Mama Thornton. But no one shaped her sensibility more palpably than Bessie Smith. Joplin tells Terkel:
I just fell in love with her. You know how kids listen to radio and all. I never listened to radio, I didn’t never get into that rock-and-roll trip. I just listened to blues. It seemed real. The other stuff seemed so tacky, teenagey. It didn’t seem to have any truth in it or something. From the first moment I ever heard it that was my music.
When Terkel probes about legendary musician and civil rights activist Josh White’s incendiary assertion that no white person can sing the blues, Joplin pushes back against the limiting notion that any art form can stake its integrity on a premise of exclusion:
Even a housewife in Nebraska can sing the blues. Anybody can sing the blues. Well, I don’t know whether they can sing them or not, but they can feel them. All you gotta do is have a throat, the throat’s the difference. Everybody’s got feelings inside of them. It’s just the faculty of being able to transform it into music. I mean, everybody’s got ’em. [Shouts] Everybody’s got ’em, Mama got ’em, Papa got ’em, everybody’s got ’em! Everybody’s got those things, they’ve just got to know what to do with it. You either repress it or you use it. Sort of. I feel better after singing, yeah.
In reflecting on her parents’ response to her art, Joplin exposes the seemingly small lacerations of the soul that add up to profound personal tragedy. She tells Terkel:
[My father] said he likes Bach. He said he couldn’t get into [my music]. He said, “I’m sure that you’re doing something up there that’s good, Janis. The kids all seem to like it, but I couldn’t really get behind it.” Which is fine, that’s generous. He could say it was bad. My mother says, “Why do you have to sing so loud?” She says, “You have such a pretty voice, Janis.” She doesn’t understand.
Here, Terkel’s own genius as an explorer of the human experience shines through. “Prettiness,” he sighs. “For years we think of the young girl and pretty songs.” Joplin, surprised by the insight with which he names something with which she herself had inarticulably grappled, responds with what is essentially a summation of her credo and a lamentably timely account of mainstream pop culture to this day:
No one’s ever brought that up before. I think that’s a really valid point. Like most chick singers, like any female, they’re very ladylike in their conduct. That’s why I think they don’t think they can sing the blues, you know what I mean? I don’t mean to sound trite. But, I mean, you can’t sing the blues and have your hair bleached platinum blond and look like a cheerleader. I mean, you gotta have something else going. You gotta be able to act a little, feel a little, think a little, guts. And so most chicks don’t do that. I don’t think American girls want to be any other way than that. Like I got a sister that’s just exactly like that. And she doesn’t want to be any other way. Which is fine, it’s fine for her. It’s just not fine for me. I gotta do my own thing and that’s the way I turned out.
Complement the altogether terrific And They All Sang with Joplin on creativity and rejection, then treat yourself to more enduring wisdom from beloved musicians: Bob Dylan on the unconscious mind and the ideal conditions for creativity, Leonard Cohen on work ethic and the muse, Leonard Bernstein on motivation and why we create, Carole King on how to overcome creative block, Aaron Copland on emotion vs. the intellect, and Amanda Palmer on the art of asking.
Published September 8, 2015