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Work Me Lord
The Secret Chord Podcast on Janis Joplin
This episode deals with the idea of loneliness and a drive for oneness as a central feature in Janis's life and music. To listen, click here.
Hello all, and welcome to episode 41 of the Secret Chord Podcast. Have to say it's an exciting moment. This is officially the one-year anniversary of the launch of the secret chord. We have made 40 episodes of music and spirituality for you. I hope you've enjoyed the ride, or maybe you're a first-time listener and just getting to know us and God willing, we are looking to bring you another year of content. Hope you enjoy our direction. Let us know what you think. Today we're here to talk about the music of the incredible Janis Lynn Joplin, who was born January 19th, 1943, in Port Arthur, Texas. She was an extraordinary singer-songwriter who sang Rock, soul, and Blues. She was one of the most successful and widely known rock stars of her era, and she was noted for her powerful mezzo-soprano vocals and electric, exciting stage presence.
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In 1967, she rose to fame following an appearance at the Monterey Pop Festival, where she was the lead singer of the then little-known San Francisco psychedelic rock band called Big Brother and The Holding Company. By the way, if you've never seen that performance, it's one of the all-time greats in the history of rock and roll. You have to see it. After releasing two albums with that band, she left Big Brother to continue as a solo artist with her own backing groups.
The first one was called the Kozmic Blues Band, and then she was with the Full Tilt Boogie Band. She also appeared at the Woodstock Festival, which, if you haven't seen, that is also a simply extraordinary performance that is an absolute must-see. Five singles recorded by Janis reached the billboard Hot 100, including a cover of the Chris Kristofferson song, Me and Bobby McGee, which reached number one in March of 1971. Her most popular songs include Her cover versions of Piece of My Heart, Cry Baby, Down on Me, Ball and Chain, and Summertime, and her original song Mercedes-Benz was her final recording.
Sadly, Janice died of an accidental heroin overdose in 1970 at the tender age of 27, after releasing only three albums, a fourth album. Pearl was released in January 1971. Just over three months after her death, it reached number one on the Billboard charts. She was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995. Rolling Stone ranked Janis number 46 on its 2004 list of the 100 greatest artists of all time and number 28 on its 2008 list of the 100 greatest singers of all time. She remains one of the top-selling musicians in the United States.
So to really understand Janis and her music, you have to know a bit about her childhood. As a teen, she was overweight, and she suffered from bad acne, which left her with deep scars that required dermabrasion. Other kids at her high school would routinely taunt her and call her names like pig, freak or creep. She stated, “I was a misfit. I read, I painted. I thought.”
During the year she had spent at the University of Texas at Austin, Janis had been voted, quote, “the ugliest man on campus” by frat boys. Unfortunately, this abuse had a long-lasting effect, that she never fully recovered from. Despite her incredible success, she never developed true self-esteem and suffered incredible loneliness as soon as the stage lights went out. Not surprisingly, this led to all kinds of destructive behavior that would eventually cause her tragic death.
Pearl is the second and final solo album by Janis, released in January 1971. It was the final album with her direct participation and the only one recorded with the Full Tilt Boogie Band, her final touring unit. It peaked at number one, holding that spot for nine weeks. It's been certified quadruple platinum by the R I A A. The first song we're going to hear today was written by Jerry Ragovoy, and Mort Schumann, both of whom wrote other songs for her, including Peace of My Heart, Cry Baby, and Others. This is “Get It While You Can” by the great Janis Joplin.
Now, as a teenager, Janice befriended a group of outcasts, one of whom had albums by blues artists Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, and Leadbelly, whom Janis later credited with influencing her decision to become a singer. These were classic blues musicians, and in all honesty, the essence of the blues is pain and heartache, hence its name. It seems to me that real rock and roll, which is rooted in the blues, must contain a twinge of pain to be authentic, and most great music does. In any event. By the way, Smith's grave was unmarked until a tombstone was erected on it on August 7th, 1970, and was paid for by none other than Janis. This tune is a bit of a gospel feel to it, and I think that the use of a piano and organ is extremely effective, with a nice late sixties guitar solo right in the middle, which builds to the crescendo of the song.
She has one of the most instantly recognizable voices in music history, and despite the fact that it's not the cleanest and not the most polished sounding voice, the way she just digs in and goes for it is simply extraordinary. This style and blues and jazz is sometimes referred to as gutbucket, which I think is a perfect description. All of her guts are in her voice, there for the whole world to see. Online, there's a writer called Cherokee Billy who wrote, “she used her entire soul when she sang. I always preferred male singers, but Janis was different than any woman I'd ever heard sing at that time. She arranged all of her own music and wrote some of her songs. A true talent. Unfortunately, I never got to see her perform live, but I followed everything about her as she lived. She struck me as an extremely sad and lonely young woman.”
Indeed, Janis sings here, “In this world. If you read the papers, darling, you know everybody's fighting with each other, and there's no one you can count on, not even your own brother. So if someone comes along, he's going to give you some love and affection. I'd say, Get it while you can.” So while I might not agree with her conclusion, I do agree with her sentiment. I understand it. She once said, “I'm a victim of my own insides. There was a time when I wanted to know everything. It used to make me very unhappy, all that feeling. I just didn't know what to do with it. But now I've learned to make that feeling work for me. I'm full of emotion, and I want a release, and if you are on stage and it's really working, and you've got the audience with you, it's a oneness you feel.”
Now, we've mentioned many times before. Oneness is something that all of humanity is looking for at all times and that it's a distinctly spiritual pursuit. One that, at its deepest roots, is really a search for the ultimate unity of existence, which is God himself. Janis gives the whole thing away here. The real reason that she performs is that she's looking for unity, a unity that alluded her for her entire life. And what is the word that we use to describe this feeling of disunity that so many people experience? It's loneliness, which I would argue is the defining sentiment in Janis's life and work.
Oneness is all that she ever wanted, and it bled out of her each and every time she performed. So the soul has its own language, and it can't take harshness or abuse like she experienced when she was a kid. That's why there's so many biblical commandments about how to speak and interact with people. It's speaking to us as souls and telling us how to speak in the soul language. How much would Janis have benefited from the kids in her community having some awareness of this idea? I wonder if they regretted it when they heard about her death.
Suffice it to say that there's a way spiritual people talk and that cruelty, mockery and jest are just not part of it. It's something to think about and work on. And by the way, she's not the only one.
Consider these remarks given by Jodi Foster on the occasion of her 50th birthday. Amazing. That's the summation of her remarkable career. “I need to be understood and to not be so very lonely.” Incredible, and we're all in the same boat. Some just manage it better than others. Have you ever wondered why humans become lonely? What exactly is it all about? We can be lonely with many people around. Just why is it so hard not to feel that way?
So as we mentioned, on October 4th, 1970, Janis died all alone in a cheap motel in Hollywood from a heroin overdose. She was only 27 years old, a sad little girl who died like she lived most of her life, alone. She was a vulnerable young woman.
And now for our main feature and another incredible song about loneliness, this is Work Me Lord, by the great Janis Joplin.
That is just an extraordinary piece of music. This is a gorgeous, slow-blues gospel tune. Each part works so well the way it builds with lots of peaks and valleys with Janis soaring way out above over it all.
The introduction of a horn section is always a risky thing as it can make a tune sound cheesy, but it works so well here. Perfect balance and orchestration. You can clearly hear and really appreciate each instrument. And here's Janice once again lamenting her loneliness and heartache and appealing to the Almighty for help. In this case it's an utterly convincing and authentic prayer from the depths of her soul. I don't see how you couldn't get chills listening to this each and every time. I don't see how you couldn't get chills listening to this. Each and every time, she writes, “work me, Lord, work me. Please don't leave me. I feel so useless down here with no one to love. Though I've looked everywhere and I can't find me anybody to love to feel my care. So work me, Lord, use me. Lord, don't you know how hard it is trying to live all alone?”
So what, in the end, is loneliness. In my humble opinion, it's a detachment from the source, the ultimate source as critically important as healthy human interaction is. We all know that it's imperfect. We know deep down that it's hard for people to understand us deeply. As Jodi Foster said. In some ways, we really are worlds unto ourselves, reaching out to connect with others but always falling short to some degree. There's a Kabbalistic idea that it was for a reason that Adam was created alone. It was so that there would be a power embedded in the human soul that allows it to function just fine all by itself to enable us to feel a whole, happy and complete without any need for approval or even attention from others, yet the text goes on to say that it's not good for Adam to be alone. We are meant to strive for authentic connection with others.
Nevertheless, each of us is capable of and, in fact, need to learn how to be fully and happily with just ourselves and our ever-present companion who brought all into being and continues to sustain us. This is the ultimate cure for our loneliness. It's the formula to never being lonely again.
Well, those are my thoughts about loneliness and the great Janis Joplin and her astounding music. Hope you've enjoyed and I look forward to another week and another year of this exploration of the connection between music and spirituality. Thank you so much for being here.
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