Janis Joplin has an indelible image as a swaggering, boozing rock 'n' roll mama whose blues-based music was a raw outpouring of her angst. The 1979 Bette Midler film The Rose, which depicts a Joplin-like singer, strengthened that view. Very likely it's why a lengthy list of actresses — including Renee Zellweger, Brittany Murphy, Pink, Lili Taylor, Zooey Deschanel and Vanessa Hudgens (!) — have expressed interest in playing her onscreen.
But it's an image that Lauren Onkey and Mary Davis hope to dispel, or at least replace with a new respect for her key role in the crossbreeding of rock and blues. Onkey, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum's vice president of education and public programs, and Davis, associate director of Case Western Reserve's Baker-Nord Center for the Humanities, are the organizers of this year's 14th edition of the Rock Hall's American Music Masters series, Kozmic Blues: the Life and Music of Janis Joplin. It takes place all this week at the Rock Hall, Case and other venues around town, culminating with the usual gala tribute concert on November 14 at PlayhouseSquare's State Theatre, featuring Lucinda Williams, Nona Hendryx, Roky Erickson, Guy Clark, Susan Tedeschi and others.
Davis acknowledges the enduring fascination with Joplin as a hard-living figure who died in 1970 at the age of 27, saying that in a class she and Onkey are teaching, the students are fixated on it. "The drugs and death part of the story engage them the most," she says. "We've had a really hard time moving them off that story and onto the story of Janis Joplin the serious artist and why she matters."
Davis admits having made the journey herself from thinking about Joplin's image to thinking about her music, a journey that will be covered in a day of panels, interviews and presentations at Case on November 14.
"She was never at the top of my favorite artists," says Davis. "I got into Janis through the blues. I started to think about her relationship to people like Lead Belly and Bessie Smith. Thinking about the public image of her as a countercultural, San Francisco type of person didn't connect with what I as hearing. What I was hearing in her interpretations of songs Lead Belly and Bessie Smith had performed was a really careful interpretation. Janis was mining this trove of material that goes back as far as you can go with American music. There's a part of her career that has to do with digging into this musical history, coming to grips with it and representing it in her own way. I came to appreciate how much work went into what she was doing."
Onkey acknowledges the challenge of finding the musician underneath the myth.
"There are so many stories out there about her life, I suppose it does cloud your vision at some point, but it's great to focus on the story of music," she says. "There's so much that hasn't been told much, like her connection to roots artists. She was performing for five or six years before she went to San Francisco in 1966 and started performing with Big Brother and the Holding Company. That's a story we found to be rich and very important in how she developed as a singer. I think that the myth is part of it. I don't want to pretend that's not there or doesn't matter. She created a persona for a certain kind of rock star for both men and women. But we're trying to tell a broad story that taps into different parts of her musical history."
Davis and Onkey hope that the intimate stories of panel participants Country Joe McDonald and Bob Neuwirth, who knew Joplin early in her career, as well as interviews with Joplin's sister Laura and brother Michael, will help dispel the idea that she was some kind of "natural" who didn't know what she was doing but was driven to do it.
"With a lot of women artists, there is a myth that their art is instinctual and not the result of craft," says Onkey. "They think of Janis as unbridled person who sang with abandon. But she thought carefully about what she was going to sing and how she was going to sing it."
That storyline of Joplin as a woman in what was then an oppressively male-dominated field, and how that impacted her music and how she was perceived and treated, is likely to be one of the main themes of the event. The Case educational event will kick off with a discussion featuring three women music journalists who have written extensively about the role of women in music: Ann Powers, Holly George-Warren and Lucy O'Brien. Their voices are especially important given that the first generation of "serious" rock-music critics — the ones who created the narrative of the form at the very time when Joplin was at her peak — were almost exclusively male.
This year's edition of American Music Masters is the first to give full-scale treatment to a woman performer. Joplin's inspiration, Bessie Smith, was the subject of the 2001 event, which was given cursory, truncated treatment when it was postponed two months following 9/11.
Onkey says Joplin wasn't a hard choice as an honoree.
"She was somebody who was in the mix for quite a while," she says. "It seemed like the right year to address her story, with things like the 40th anniversary of Woodstock. It's an exciting era to look into. And if you look at the artists who changed the shape of culture, Janis was going to be on that list, not just for her impact but for her connection to roots musicians we've honored previously, like Bessie Smith, Sam Cooke and Jimmie Rodgers."