Tuesday, July 24, 2018
July 24, 2018: Folk Music Studying: Joan Baez and Janis Joplin
[On July 25th, 1965 Bob Dylan famously—or infamously—plugged in an electric guitar on stage for the first time, as part of the Newport Folk Festival. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy that moment and a few other American folk music topics!]
On two alternate visions of the counter-culture, and what links them.
Few (if any) musicians or artists better define the 1960s hippie counter-culture than folk singer/songwriter and activist Joan Baez (1941- ). Her first three albums, Joan Baez (1960), Joan Baez, Vol. 2 (1961), and Joan Baez in Concert (1962), all of which were certified gold, helped usher in the 1960s and the vital role that traditional and folk music would play in the decade’s social and cultural revolutions. Her social and political activism had begun even earlier, with a high school act of civil disobedience in 1958 and a burgeoning friendship with Martin Luther King, Jr.; by 1963 Baez was sufficiently linked to the Civil Rights Movement that her performance of “We Shall Overcome” was a central part of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Music would remain a central part of the decade’s social movements as they deepened and evolved, of course, and artists like Baez (and Monday’s subject Bob Dylan) would thus not only become cultural complements to the activism, but would play integral roles in articulating and fighting for those progressive perspectives.
The hippie movement and counter-culture were at least as closely linked to drugs as social and political activism, however, and perhaps no single musician better exemplifies that link than mercurial, tremendously talented blues singer/songwriter Janis Joplin (1943-1970). Joplin’s band, Big Brother and the Holding Company, were associated with the musical style known as psychedelic rock; their breakout performance of “Ball and Chain” was at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, an event defined at least as much by the presence of those illicit substances (among the audience, anyway) as by the unquestionably amazing artists and performances it featured. I don’t want to take anything away from Joplin’s prodigious talents as a singer, performer, and songwriter, all of which were on display in that 1967 performance and can be found in abundance on the four studio albums that she released during (or just after the end of) her far too short life and career. But at the same time, the role that heroin played in that tragic end was only the final example of the consistent presence of drugs in both Joplin’s public persona and (apparently) her private life—a presence that mirrored the central role of drugs throughout the 60s counter-culture.
So Baez and Joplin reflect two radically distinct elements of the counter-culture, sides to the decade’s social movements that could even be seen as opposed (at least inasmuch as the politically activist side was working actively toward the future, while the drug side represented an overt way of checking out of the present). Yet there were other sides to those movements, and I would argue that in another way Baez and Joplin illustrate a fundamental similarity: the opportunity presented in these movements for previously silenced communities to not only add their voices to national conversations, but to become key participants in and leaders of those dialogues. There had of course been vocal women in American society, politics, and culture throughout our history—I’ve written about some of my favorite such voices here and elsewhere—but the 60s and its social movements offered significant new spaces and forums for women such as Baez and Joplin to have their say, make their mark, and leave the nation a far different place as a result. The most tragic part of Joplin’s story, then, is that we haven’t had the chance (as we have with Baez) to continue to hear from her in all the decades since.
Next folk studying tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Folk music moments or texts you’d highlight?