Page 18


Haight, Rolling Stone ran a lengthy article on the music of the era: Janis herself was virtually unmentioned, and Big Brother received a fraction of the ink devoted not only to the Grateful Dead, but such lesserlight bands as the Charlatans. Echols also carefully articulates the power and personalities of the commercial rock music industry, describing the management and personal styles of such notables as Chet Helms, who owned the Avalon Ballroom; Bill Graham, the more famous and savvy owner of the Fillmore West; and Albert Grossman, Joplin’s manager \(Dylan ure in sixties folk and rock music. In Echols’ account, the business acumen of Graham and Grossman distinguished them from the pack of hippie impresarios who dominated rock promotion during that era. Echols quotes Dave Getz of Big Brother: “It’s so weird when you think of it now the people who managed these rock bands…. Chet [Helms] was a guy who dealt grass who got into the business of putting on the dances; Bill Graham was a real businessman, a force as a person and well-equipped to manage bands. But most of these guys were hippies who had a little more business skill than the people they were managing.” If Echols can delineate the subtleties of gender and business relations in the sixties subculture, she is equally able to analyze the complexities of race relations as they evolved around rock and the blues. So long as the main music of the intellectual subculture was folk music, with its roots in white Appalachian and white Southern forms, there was little implication for race relations. However, as rock ‘n’ roll with its abundant and obvious debt to the blues came to supplant folk music as the most popular music among young whites, the stage was set for a potential conflict over the unacknowledged appropriation by whites of black musical forms. This discussion is of specific importance to the story of Janis Joplin, since she quite self-consciously appropriated the blues as Elvis Presley had done a dozen years earlier. Unlike Presley, though, Joplin was not interested in recycling blues tunes into a form of rock more palatable to whites. She found, directly in the songs and singing styles of Big Mama Thornton and others, a raw A Janis and family, Port Arthur, 1967 nerve connected straight to the pain and loneliness that Echols shows to be the constant core of her being. Black musicians did appreciate Joplin and her work, and Echols notes that nearly all of them welcomed her enthusiasm for the traditional musical forms. Big Mama Thornton reportedly “applauded Janis’s version of ‘Ball and Chain,’ saying, ‘That girl feels like I do.'” Not all encounters between older blues legends and their young white admirers were so productive. Echols relates one particularly embarrassing episode, when the band Quicksilver Messenger Service hosted a dinner for Chicago blues legend Bo Diddley: The menu consisted of fried chicken, okra, and, yes, even watermelon. Bo, who had been born in Mississippi but raised in the North, took one look at the spread and barked, “I don’t eat shit like this. Get me some food I can eat.” What Echols seems to miss or at least does not make explicit in this discussion, is that young whites of the sixties subculture felt they shared with black musicians an alienation from the mainstream white culture of their parents. Echols notes the rift between black and white musical cultures that arose during this period and Leonard Duckett which has only widened since. She might also have noted that the common ground many young whites feel with blacks has persisted despite the best efforts of young black artists to leave them behind. This can be the only explanation for the continuing infatuation of young whites for even the most sexist and violent exponents of gangsta rap. It must have been easier for white fans in 1968 to develop an appreciation of black music, which was a beautiful, soulful, blues-charged engine of swinging horns, rippling rhythms, and sweet vocals. The subculture of black music leads, inevitably, to the sub-subculture of drug use, and the famous downfall of the star of this narrative. Echols describes how young white musicians used heroin in an attempt to acquire the soulfulness of the blacks they idolized. She quotes singer Tracy Nelson of the band Mother Earth: “They knew all the old jazz and blues greats did drugs. I can’t tell you how many times I heard Ray Charles’s name invoked in that context…. They just didn’t get it. These people weren’t soulful because they did heroin. They did heroin because they were in pain. It was such an artificial, bullshit way of trying to get down and it killed a lot of people.” AUGUST 20, 1999 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 27