Towards the end of her life, Janis Joplin made a magnanimous gesture that confirmed her debt to an artist who was one of her greatest inspirations: the great blues singer Bessie Smith. On August 8, 1970, Joplin and Juanita Green — who had done housework for Smith as a child — paid for a proper headstone to be laid at Smith’s gravesite, which had remained unmarked since she was buried some 33 years earlier.
Joplin saw the equally outspoken and groundbreaking artist as such a role model that she sometimes told her friends she felt like Smith reincarnated. The tombstone at the gravesite, near Philadelphia, henceforth carried the epitaph “The Greatest Blues Singer in the World Will Never Stop Singing.” The touching, heartfelt words were chosen by Joplin and Green, who by this time was also the president of the North Philadelphia chapter of the NAACP.
Smith, fondly remembered as “The Empress of the Blues,” had died in 1937, her exact age unknown, although she was thought to be 43. She was killed in a road accident near Coahoma, Mississippi, and some 7,000 people were estimated to have attended her funeral.
‘This huge voice’
In an interview with Hit Parader magazine in 1969, Joplin explained just how influential Smith and other blues singers had been in the development of her own style. “Back in Port Arthur, I’d heard some Lead Belly records, and, well, if the blues syndrome is true, I guess it’s true about me,” she said. “So I began listening to blues and folk music. I bought Bessie Smith and Odetta records, and one night, I was at this party and I did an imitation of Odetta. I’d never sung before, and I came out with this huge voice.”
Joplin and Green’s gesture with the headstone moved the artist Dory Previn to write the song “Stone For Bessie Smith,” which she included on her 1971 album Mythical Kings and Iguanas, released some seven months later. Very poignantly, Joplin herself was not around to hear it: she died of a drug overdose at the age of 27, just two months after Bessie’s headstone was erected, in October 1970.
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