Caterwauling Summertime Babies

June 16, 2014

PART SIX The Bird That Caged Herself

Summertime reversed.bmp
It seems there must be some monsters in any “Summertime” discussion; they are unavoidable. There are so many masks in the creation, production and interpretation of this lullaby based in lost racial caricature that there will always be distortions to amuse, distract, and not infrequently offend someone. Most disturbing versions in my personal survey are the “Summertime” recordings of Janis Joplin. .
Since 1968-69 time hasn’t been kind to Ms. Joplin, particularly with her two recordings of “Summertime”. The lens of fifty years has magnified their flaws and diminished their contextual meaning. That doesn’t mean that they are somehow dishonest, but rather that like many recordings from that period of experimentation and excess, they have difficulty escaping being classified only as artifacts. It requires effort to review these recordings. In spite of the fond memories they contain for me personally, if I weren’t writing this essay I don’t think I would choose to listen to them, as opposed to others I’ve already discussed.

In 1968, when I was seventeen, I saw Ms. Joplin perform with Big Brother and the Holding Company in a half filled Public Hall in Cleveland, Ohio. They were touring in support of “Cheap Thrills”, the album containing “Summertime”. Apart from seeing “The Executioners” at a school dance, I’d never seen a rock and roll act in person. Even today I recall her performance as loud, hypnotic and vaguely desperate. We met her on stage briefly afterwards and she put a string of beads around the neck of my friend Anne. She seemed small, alone and kind. I felt oddly pleased that she had an acne eruption. Janis Joplin represented any shunned teenager’s fantasy to become suddenly charismatic, discovered and recognized as the voice their generation’s rebellion. In 1968 that was Ms. Joplin’s actual reality.

She was both fortunate and fatally inopportune to inhabit a musical era that prized ecstatic improvisation over formal training. That period of popular music was defined by a synergistic combination of burgeoning Boomer/Hippie audiences, the expansion of rock and roll from an intimate club acts to commercialized stadium productions, and the widespread availability and near mandatory use of all manner of dangerous drugs. The Dionysian mood of the times produced, idolized and devoured dozens of artists like Janis Joplin. Even while she was alive she was an artist whose recordings were primarily memorabilia of her performances. What was fundamental to her career was the myth of overpowering genius, that she had magically escaped a restrictive world (and high school in 1960s Port Arthur, Texas was undoubtedly constraining) and been daemonically remade into some kind of elemental voice singing outside the limitations of ordinary lives. It wasn’t talent; it was the spectacle of inspiration crowds came to witness. The promise of her show was hip fun, catharsis and relatively safe proximity to unfettered rebellion.

What she presented to me that night in Cleveland was far removed from any record she produced in her career. It was similar to the difference between seeing a tightrope walker in a circus tent, or on television; the value diminishes in relation to the immediate proximity of disaster. Technically she was untrained, and like many of the Blues and Rhythm & Blues singers she emulated, she prematurely ruined her instrument by the demands of over-performance. However “Summertime” was recorded in 1968 and Ms. Joplin largely directed the production of the entire “Cheap Thrills” recording, and at twenty-five, was in her best form. It isn’t unreasonable to assume the recording is what she intended. Films of her in the studio during those recording sessions reveal her to be intelligent, determined and a skillful manager of the people and the task and before her.

She released a live version from her performance at the Woodstock Music Festival and included “Summertime” as a staple of her concerts. Her interpretation was a rock and roll version of blues. Ms. Joplin’s emotive rock and roll vocals were genuine in her ability to integrate traditional African American musical forms into the eidetic shapes of the improvisations of acid rock. On the other hand, Big Brother and the Holding Company were (and remained) a terribly inadequate backup band. Even in a time when no guitar solo was too shapeless, too distorted, or was required to adhere to any tempo, they struggled. I charitably assume it was drugs in excess, or the demands of maintaining the psychedelic blues music style.

Blues was a favored as a form because it was fundamentally simple to play, but allowed for improvisation and personalization. Blues also contained an emotional authority that rock and roll didn’t; you believed Robert Johnson, you pretended to believe Chuck Berry. Generally white musicians in the sixties employed a musical style that tended to imitate and re-inhabit existing blues forms with combinations of technical virtuosity, improvisation and emotional excess in a quest for a type of “authenticity” that overcame the limitations of not being “black”. It was part of the same long, angry conversation that extended from Stephen Foster, minstrelsy and colored “Porgy and Bess” from its initial productions through today. In the late 1960’s there were particularly virulent debates about the qualities and degree of “blackness” in popular music and art. Many African American artists like Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones), took realistic offense at the historic exploitation of “black music” by “white” artists. In the late sixties and early seventies, that conversation, like much of the heated rhetoric of those days,became virulent, accusatory and simultaneously productive and counter-productive.

In the less than ten years since the last surge of recordings of “Summertime”, Louis Armstrong was abused for Uncle Tom-ism, John Coltrane was dead and cannonizied, and the Protean Miles Davis was abandoning post-bop jazz quartets for free form funk ensembles. There was deserved criticism for groups and white musicians who even refused to acknowledge their musical sources. And there was the de facto financial re-segregation of traditional rhythm and blues by British musicians and blue eyed soul singers. Historical accuracy and financial responsibility notwithstanding, that debate was and continues to be genuine in that it struggles with, privilege, integration and identity. Janis Joplin’s interpretation of “Summertime” speaks to those issues although somewhat obliquely.

In 1968 “Summertime” appeared on “Cheap Thrills” which was the Billboard number one album for eight weeks, and sold over a million copies in its first month of release. The album cover featured illustrations by the underground comic artist, Art Crumb, who depicted the singer of “Summertime” in an exaggerated racial caricature of a kerchief wearing ‘mammy’ holding a white baby. It was (and is) a disturbing reference. The only way the image could have been more offensive would for it to have been to be larger. Originally it was intended to be the back liner notes, but Ms. Joplin lobbied to have it become the cover. The iconoclastic Mr. Crumb aside, there is a solipsistic entitlement that pervades this recording. From this vantage nearly fifty years later I could charitably call this expression adolescent, new found powers to shock or contest authority. Adolescent rebellion acting out. Charitably it speaks of the naiveté, rebellion and poor judgment of intoxicated youth. It’s same formula that continues to produce unfortunate wardrobe choices, regrettable sexting, sad tattoos, vandalism, and tens of thousands of car wrecks. It’s that initial flush of liberty that seems invigorating, irresponsible, and addictive.

But any parent can tell you adolescent acting out isn’t without consequences for someone. Willie Mae ”Big Mama” Thornton ten years previously had her R&B hit “Hound Dog” re-recorded by the young, white, Elvis Presley. Ten years later had her hit song, ”Ball & Chain”, re-recorded by the young, white, Janis Joplin. Both of the re-recordings were so successful that they transformed white trash singers into single name identities, Elvis and Janis. Ms. Thornton wrote “Ball &Chain”, but received no royalty payments, only the snide credit buried in the illustration of the “Cheap Thrills” album cover. Although Ms. Thornton wasn’t alone as an African-American musician in being cheated out of publishing rights and royalties by predatory record deals, it must have been bitter to have it happen on such a scale twice. It wasn’t just the songs, Ms. Thornton had her act appropriated as if it were public property, translated into a “whitened” version delivered by over sexualized delinquents, and had seen both thieves rewarded with unimagined sums of money and international fame. However she did outlive them both.

Artistic rebellion, zeitgeist, countercultural movements, and frozen adolescence aside, Ms. Joplin was addicted to drugs and alcohol. She died of a heroin overdose in October of 1970. Her entire career was a little less than five years long. Without judging her life and personal struggles, it’s difficult to overlook the influences of the harsh realities of that lifestyle on her music.

It would also be unfair to characterize Ms. Joplin as “trapped in adolescence” without mentioning that there were seventy-six million other people approximately her age who owned a pair of bell bottomed pants. The entire country was quite literally trapped in adolescence. It was an enormous audience and market for music and fashion, but it was also a collective mirror for the unmodulated hormones, de rigueur creativity, and rebelliousness that marked both that period of life and those moments in time. For a brief time, Ms. Joplin was merely first citizen among millions of women with long frazzled hair, flowing blouses and a tangle of necklaces. At the same time in the background of every dinner conversation was a war drafting and sending home thousands of casualties, riots and assassinations.

Listening to the “Cheap Thrills” rendition of “Summertime” it’s difficult for me to imagine to whom this song is directed. There is little of a lullaby sounding in this arrangement, unless it is it is the sound of a trapped woman singing to try to soothe her inner child. (Not an altogether inaccurate definition of rock and roll as an art form.) There’s no summer and no musical allusions to the Catfish Row of “Porgy and Bess”. Sam Andrew III is credited for having arranged the guitar figures that interpret the song. He employs the stylistic minor key noodling raga that was the beginning of many pop songs from that period and then extends it into searching motif. Ultimately it finds Ms. Joplin’s voice imposing the lyric and melody over two guitar parts that ramble around in distortion and distress until converging at a sonic mutual climax, and then trundle off again in what appears to a cyclical repetition,It was a formula used by hundreds of bands forconcert and extended versions of songs. Apart from tribute bands, this “Summertime” doesn’t strike me as an interpretation that might want to be repeated. However Ms. Joplin’s vocalizing comes across as brutally intimate, and carries the burden through the nebulous guitars, and that amalgam is, in its way, surprisingly honest and beautiful.

What Ms. Joplin required herself to do spiritually and physically to produce those recordings was authentic art in spite of my reservations of taste, racial sensitivity, or the ethics of its cost. The “Cheap Thrills” recording nods faintly to an imagined world of “Porgy and Bess” (Mr. Crumb had seen to that) but primarily it re-imagines the song as a cathartic expression of privileged intimacy with the music of dark summer spirits. The voice of Janis Joplin tears at itself to imitate a séance with the legendary curses, haunts, and superstitions that populate the shadows of classic blues. The seemingly intoxicated guitars might describe the sonic landscape of the Catfish Row Ms. Joplin knew. A street scene also replete with drug dealers, bullies, shade tree picnics, con games, untrustworthy friends and philanderers. Onto that cheap thrill surface she projects her inner doubts and losses with no more protection than a string of beads. She inhabits both the memory of the 1935 song and her Orphic need to sing. In her versions of “Summertime” there is a sense of fracture, of tumbling, and surrounding menace. She creates the appearance of being possessed by a voice that the singer can neither stop, nor escape until the song is over.

The qualities we expect from a performer are ones that the audience generally prefers to have concealed. We don’t care to view the practice required to develop those exact notes subtly inflected or extended, we just expect the anticipated sonic image each night in Monterrey, Woodstock, or Cleveland. That kind of consistent vocal presence comes through a lifetime of training and tedious hours of discipline that are generally known only to professional musicians and their families. That training also develops the ability to put on and take off the mask of performance. Ms. Joplin had none of that and what audiences demanded of Ms. Joplin was different and more.

In an age of celebrated for care-free life style, Janis Joplin was expected to suffer, ritually and gracelessly. Her public suffering relieved part of the collective guilt of her intoxicated generation by her willing exhibitions of pain. Within that dynamic the cultura land racial stylistic notions of “authenticity” or “real” become more tragic. That self- immolation comes through in the 1969 live recording of “Summertime” at Woodstock. She is abandoned in the lyrics to trance-like syllabic stammering, a different dialect from the one Abbie Lincoln sang in 1935. Neither is it the world weary complaint of Bessie Smith, or the sly wisdom of Willie Mae Thornton. It was toxic suffering, not blues. Ms. Joplin’s “Summertime” had no tight orchestrated revue, or slick showmanship. Her audience, her addiction, wanted to experience how close she would come to dying. Nina Simone (who also recorded “Summertime”) discussing Janis Joplin remarked bitterly “…she worked so hard, and she sang for corpses.” Those corpses were a young, white, stoned, barely conscious mob screaming and laughing. Her addiction was to same people she could never leave in Port Arthur. They came to watch the show, for the festival, it was summertime.


One Response to “Caterwauling Summertime Babies”

  1. domzuccone Says:

    Reblogged this on DomZuccone's Blog.

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