Music history: When Janis Joplin honored Bessie Smith


There are more parallels between rock singer Janis Joplin and blues legend Bessie Smith than perhaps meets the eye. Both have voices that now live on through recordings and documentaries or movies; both had difficulties with other people because of her physical appearance, and both possess two of the most unique voices ever recorded in the 20th century.

What brought Joplin and Smith together on Aug. 7, 1970, was Joplin’s having purchased a headstone for Smith. Smith, who died in 1937 after succumbing to injuries sustained in a car accident, remained in an unmarked grave. That is until Joplin purchased a headstone. Smith’s death is considered a double tragedy of sorts of because she was allegedly refused treatment at a whites only hospital. Smith is buried in Mont Lawn Cemetery in Philadelphia.

A plethora of sources cite Joplin as claiming Smith to be one of her greatest influences. The purchase of the tombstone is a bittersweet gift for the protege to give the teacher who would never know that she’d received it. However, as rock historians and fans already know, Joplin herself would pass away later that year of an accidental heroin overdose.

Despite the sad facts of the women’s lives, both Joplin and Smith left their respective marks on American music. Both have difficult to emulate singing styles, and many claim them as influences. The ways that their lives intertwined is both sad and fascinating. What remains from both women is a catalog of songs that exist as (unofficial, perhaps) national treasures.

In addition, both Smith and Joplin created a cadre of songs based on often problematic interpersonal relationships. Smith’s famous duet with Ma Rainey as depicted in the movie “Bessie,” found Smith able to win over audiences with her ribald search for love.

For her part, Joplin, too, made audiences take notice of her in songs like “Piece of My Heart,” and “Move Over.” They were both songs of love gone wrong, and the singer’s efforts unappreciated.

Both Joplin and Smith became champions of the blues. And as a “student” of the blues, Joplin appreciated Smith by marking her life and death, even as her own death was looming just two months later.


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