Janis Joplin and Joan Baez Together Again

by Christina Knight, Editor, thirteen.org
Janis Joplin and Joan Baez

Janis Joplin (l), April 5, 1969. Photo by Evening Standard/Getty Images. Joan Baez (r) at her 75th Birthday Celebration concert, January 27, 2016. Photo by Joe Sinnott/WNET.

Two music legends who headlined music festivals together in the late 1960s are making the first week of May 2016 a reunion in spirit on national television. American Masters presents the broadcast premiere of Janis: Little Girl Blue (May 3 at 8pm) about the blues-loving rock star Janis Joplin, and Great Performances premieres Joan Baez 75th Birthday Celebration (May 6 at 9pm), a star-studded concert recorded January 27 at New York City’s historic Beacon Theatre, on the occasion of the folk singer’s birthday. The women were leaders in their respective fields — Janis as the first female rocker and Joan as the reviver of folk music.

Cover of Joan Baez's debut album (1960) on Vanguard label.

Cover of Joan Baez’s debut album (1960) on Vanguard label.

Baez (b. 1941), a native of Staten Island, NY, played gigs in Boston before her July 11, 1959, breakout performance as a teenager at the Newport Jazz Festival. Her self-titled debut album came out on Vanguard Records in October, 1960, followed by her first concert in New York City at the 92nd Street Y on November 3. Her clear soprano, excellent guitar-playing, and political activism in civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements brought her to the fore of the folk music scene. Her influence was such that even rock bands picked up songs after Baez covered them on her albums, such as “House Of the Rising Sun” (the Animals), “John Riley” (the Byrds), “Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You” (Led Zeppelin) and “Jackaroe” (Grateful Dead). By 1968, Baez published her first memoir, Daybreak.

In 1966, Joplin (1943 – 1971), a devout fan of Bessie Smith, Odetta Holmes and Otis Redding, rose up in the San Francisco psychedelic music scene as the exuberant, blues-leaning lead singer of the rock band Big Brother and the Holding Company. Joplin had her groundbreaking performance with the band at the Monterey Pop Festival in June 1967. As seen in D.A. Pennebaker’s documentary footage from the festival, Joplin’s riveting “Ball and Chain” dropped the jaw of Mama Cass (Cass Elliot) of the Mamas and the Papas.

Janis Joplin at the Newport Folk Festival, 1968. Photo by Bruce Jackson. Used with permission.

Janis Joplin at the Newport Folk Festival, 1968. Photo by Bruce Jackson. Used with permission.

The opposite of Baez’s voice, Joplin’s was famous for its raw, passionate expression, which she acknowledged relied more on strength than finesse.

Joan Baez and Janis Joplin first met in July 1968 at the Newport Folk Festival through John Byrne Cook, Joplin’s road manager. A friend of both women, he recounts their awkward introduction in his book, On the Road With Janis Joplin (2014).

Neither has the first idea what to say, and for the life of me I can’t think of a way to bridge the gap. They are incompatible elements, forces that exist in different realms. If Joan Baez is water, Janis is fire. For Joan, Newport is home. For Janis, it’s a continent away from San Francisco, the city that has made her feel truly at home for the first time in her life.

They exchange a few awkward words and Joan moves along, but Joan and Janis have more in common than the discomfiting lack of a common language suggests. Joan was the first superstar of the folk revival. Janis in on her way to becoming the first female superstar in rock.

One thing the women did have in common was a belief in racial equality and civil rights. Though not an activist or with personal ties to Martin Luther King, Jr. as Joan Baez has, Joplin took stands as a high schooler in Port Arthur, TX, to speak out against segregation and racism in her hometown. On April 7, 1968, the national day of mourning after Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination, Joplin and Big Brother and the Holding Company were among the bands that performed in a tribute concert in New York City.

Big Brother and the Holding Company’ Cheap Thrills album began its eight-week stay at Number 1 on the Billboard charts in October 1968, with the hits “Summertime” and “Piece of My Heart,” and live-audience favorite, “Ball and Chain.”

In August 1969, Baez and Joplin were again at the same music festival, and among the very few females on stage at Woodstock. Janis-Gif12The hard-driving Joplin was now performing with the band she assembled after quitting Big Brother — The Kozmic Blues Band.

Baez — six months pregnant — and Joplin shared a helicopter flight to the farm field where they would each play in the wee hours of the morning. In an interview Baez recalls the helicopter was the last one to make it in before storms hit. She and Joplin were now comfortable enough with each other, so Baez, who didn’t drink alcohol at all, made a few invitations to Janis to visit her family. “We’d talk a little bit and I said, ‘You know, you ought to come over and have some tea,’ She said “Tea? What do they have for whiskey bottles?” Like ‘What’s tea?’ And I’d laugh and say ‘Oh, I’m sorry Janis.'” Janis’ taste for alcohol and partying was no secret.

Baez’s family was already familiar with Janis. Baez’s younger sister Mimi Baez Farina, also a singer, was married to Milan Melvin, Janis’ one-time lover. Mimi also lived in San Francisco and her wedding dress was made by Janis’ roommate and clothing designer, Linda Gravenites. Mimi and Janis finally met when Mimi came to Janis’ and Linda’s apartment for her dress fitting, according to Cooke’s memoir.

Whether or not they every discussed music over tea or whiskey, Baez’s lasting connection to Joplin is the tribute recording, “In The Quiet Morning” (Come from the Shadows Album, 1972). The song was written by Mimi Baez Farina, after Joplin’s death by drug overdose on October 4, 1971. It joined the song “Pearl” by the Mamas and Papas as one of the early songs to memorialize the ebullient yet troubled woman who invited the world to “take a another little piece” of her heart.

Lyrics of “In the Quite Morning”

In the quiet morning
There was much despair
And in the hours that followed
No one could repair

That poor girl
Tossed by the tides of misfortune
Barely here to tell her tale
Rolled in on a sea of disaster
Rolled out on a mainline rail

She once walked tight at my side
I’m sure she walked by you
Her striding steps could not deny
Torment from a child who knew

That in the quiet morning
There would be despair
And in the hours that followed
No one could repair

That poor girl
She cried out her song so loud
It was heard the whole world round
A symphony of violence
The great southwest unbound