Everyone has a time when childhood ends and this thing called “on your own” begins. This time was the summer of 1968, not long after the assassination of Martin Luther King, and it was my gap year before beginning university. I was the eldest child and eldest daughter of two people who worked hard to better the lives of all of us kids. And being two African Americans whose origins were in the South, our parents wanted to have a safe and “proper” life. We were raised carefully, shielded against the various pitfalls, accidents of society and the flotsam and jetsam of African-American life. Our little house, with its neatly cultivated lawn in front and garden in the back, its two-car garage and swept front steps, was the replica of all of the houses in our street. Church on Sundays, school uniforms, no blaring music – all of this was to help us be the opposite of what society assumed about us.
In my case this was all going to plan until the year 1968 arrived, and a series of national catastrophes and opportunities presented themselves and I seized the moment and flew away. One of my landing places was the campus of the University of Chicago where a friend was an undergrad. One afternoon, I saw an album lying on a bed. It was called Cheap Thrills by something called Big Brother and the Holding Company. Its cover was a lurid cartoon landscape, and the record itself provided the leitmotif for the life I was about to live.
I was a black girl from the South Side of Chicago. The blues was part of my DNA. The blues was in the speaking voices of the old people. You could hear it coming out of houses on Sunday afternoon, usually low and furtive. It was on the radio. It was everywhere. It was our music, so how could a white girl from Texas sing it? In those days I was too green to know the answer to that. I waited for something derivative to appear, some phony sound to come out of this Texan called Janis Joplin’s mouth. But that never happened.
She sang “Summertime” like she invented the song herself; and “Ball and Chain” like she lived that life all the time. That is all that singing the blues requires. Hers was a jaunty and reckless existence and you could hear all the bourbon in her veins. Joplin did not clean up the blues, nor hide it; nor give it permission to be. When later I heard that she had found Bessie Smith’s unmarked grave and had given it a headstone, I was not surprised. Cheap Thrills is about being a woman on the open road, taking what comes and living to tell the tale.
That afternoon of my epiphany, I played it about five times in succession. On the fifth playing, I knew that it was embedded. I didn’t need to hear it ever again. I had my orders.
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This article appears in the 08 Dec 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special