Rock Hall’s Director of Education Discusses the Sound of Janis’ Voice
Last night we hosted the first event of American Music Masters week: Rock and Roll Night School at the Baker-Nord Center for the Humanities at Case Western Reserve University. The evening featured multi-media presentations by Dr. Lauren Onkey, Dr. Mary Davis (Chair of the Music Department at CWRU), and myself, examining Janis Joplin’s contributions to rock and roll history.
My presentation focused on what I most love about Joplin: her voice! Her vocal performances are so moving. She makes you feel something. She makes you want to jump and shout, dance and sing. People often talk about the wild abandon of her voice, as if she experienced a kind of rapture in her performances that pushed her and her audience to the edge. But after diving deep into her music over the last year I realized that her performances of rapture were just that, performances. It’s not that she didn’t feel them, but as a performer she worked at refining the way she created these moments for her audience. A great example of this is her performances of the classic Big Mama Thornton tune “Ball and Chain.” In early shows with Big Brother and the Holding Company Janis sings with a voice that suggests the classic blues sounds of Ma Rainey or Bessie Smith. She shouts out repeated words and even pushes her voice into the upper edge of her vocal range. By 1968 her technique had developed and expanded. She moved in and out of a falsetto register to push her voice even higher – up there her voice growls and hisses, but it’s all part of the sound. She sweeps the melody up and down, uses volume to create dynamic impact with very soft and very loud passages, and her repeated words found a rhythmic grounding that turned them into the equivalent of stabbing horn blasts. In her later performances with the Kozmic Blues Band and the Full Tilt Boogie Band, Joplin rules. The form of the song changes to allow her more time as a solo vocalist in which the vocal techniques she was honing are now full blown, and we all experience the ecstasy of her voice.
“Ball and Chain” was written by Big Mama Thornton (the first artist to record “Hound Dog”). Big Mama was one of the many blues singers that Janis admired. But when all of us in the education department went to look for the recording of Big Mama’s that Janis listened to in order to learn the song, we couldn’t find it. We wanted to play it in our Rockin’ the Schools program and use it to prepare for the tribute concert. Big Mama’s 1968 recording came out almost two years after Big Brother and the Holding Company started performing it live. Turns out that Joplin and Big Brother must have heard Thornton perform it live in San Francisco in 1966. This morning I was able to talk with Big Brother guitarist Sam Andrew on the phone (while the band is on tour in Europe) and ask him about the song. Sam confirmed that the band learned it from seeing Big Mama perform at the Both/And club on Divisadero St. in San Francisco. He said that Big Mama performed it as an up-tempo blues shuffle in a major key, but Big Brother decided to slow it down and put it in a minor key. While the LP dominated the late 1960s, the “Ball and Chain” story shows how powerful the live music experience still was for musicians.
Here’s a playlist of the Janis performances of “Ball and Chain” I used in Rock and Roll Night School:
· Big Brother and the Holding Company, Live in San Francisco (July, 1966)
· Big Brother and the Holding Company, Live at Monterey Pop (Saturday June 17, 1967)
· Big Brother and the Holding Company, Cheap Thrills (April 13, 1968)
· Kozmic Blues Band, Live at Woodstock (August 17, 1969)
· Full Tilt Boogie Band, Festival Express (July 4, 1970; Calgary)
Seats and tickets are still available for the rest of the week’s events. Click here for a schedule.