From her early, unhappy teen years in Port Arthur, Texas, Janis Joplin seemed to know she wanted to be a blues singer. She once said she decided to become a singer when a friend “loaned her his Bessie Smith and Leadbelly records,” writes biographer Ellis Amburn. “Ten years later, Janis was hailed as the premier blues singer of her time. She paid tribute to Bessie by buying her a headstone for her unmarked grave.” She was devoted to the blues, from her earliest encounters with the music in her youth to her last recorded song, the lonely, a capella blues, “Mercedes Benz.”
But when Joplin first appeared on the San Francisco scene in 1963, she did so as a Dylan-influenced folkie fresh from the University of Texas, Austin. The year before, she had been described by a profile in The Daily Texan as an artist who “goes barefooted when she feels like it, wears Levis to class because they’re more comfortable, and carries her autoharp with her everywhere she goes so that in case she gets the urge to break into song, it will be handy.” The article was titled “She Dares to Be Different.”
Joplin’s folk persona was hardly unique in either San Francisco or Austin in the early 60s. “In fact, her love of Dylan and folk simply marked her out as a rider of the zeitgeist,” writes music journalist Chris Salewicz. “When, for example, a former University of Texas alumnus called Chet Helms passed through [Austin] he was astonished at the wealth of folk music.” Helms, who had already moved west, promised Joplin gigs in San Francisco. The pair hitchhiked to the city “midway through January 1963, with considerable trepidation… a trek in which they spent 50 hours on the road.”
Once in North Beach, a neighborhood defined by City Lights bookstore and the Beats, Helms found Joplin gigs at Coffee and Confusion, then the Coffee Gallery, where she “was just one of many future rockers to play the Coffee Gallery as a folkie,” writes Alice Echols. In South Bay coffeehouses, she met Jerry Garcia and future Jefferson Airplane guitarist Jorma Kaukonen. Everyone made the coffeehouse rounds, acoustic guitar in hand. It was the way to make a name in the scene, which Janis did quickly, appearing the same year she arrived in San Francisco on the side stage at the Monterey Folk Festival.
But Janis brought something different than other students of Dylan — bigger and bolder and louder and deeply rooted in a Southern blues tradition Joplin spread to astonished beatniks like a “Blues Historian,” one commenter notes, “turning a small audience on to some obscure and forgotten performers, whose music would serve as the foundation for an entire genre yet to come.” You can hear her do just that in the gig above at the Coffee Gallery in 1963: “no drums, no crowds. Just Janis and a small group of people gathered to hear some samples of rural blues, done by an enthusiast from Texas.”
See the full setlist below. Other performers on the recording, according to the YouTube uploader, are Larry Hanks on acoustic guitar and vocals, and Billy Roberts (or possibly Roger Perkins) on acoustic guitar, as well as banjo, vocals, and harmonica.
Leaving’ This Morning (K.C. Blues)
Daddy, Daddy, Daddy
Black Mountain Blues
Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Washington, DC. Follow him @jdmagness