Letting Our Freak Flag Fly: Janis Joplin and the Sorternity

I didn’t want to join a sorority when I went to college.  I knew very little about sororities except what I had learned from Animal House – basically, that they consisted of majorette and cheerleader types with stiff hair. I didn’t want to be a stiff-haired girl; I equated stiff hair with a stiff mind.

animal house girl

Plus I had heard all these rumors about how the sorority girls would put your picture up on a screen with an overhead projector when you were trying to join or pledge or whatever the correct terminology is.  They would all stare at your picture en masse, reviewing your various physical and social flaws and merits.  I don’t know if this actually happened, mind you, but even the hint of this taking place was enough to send me running in the other direction.

It was all cloaked in heavy, slightly creepy mystery, a la Jimmy Page’s alleged dealings with you-know-who, and there were whispers of secret rituals and rules of “ladylike” behavior that you had to follow or you would get kicked out.  Something about not smoking standing up, or maybe it was not drinking a beer standing up, or maybe it was both.  Things like that.  Just oppressive, life-draining, power-robbing things like that.

The whole thing just seemed so “Old South”.  Or maybe it was just “Old” in general – like the sixties had never happened.  Anyway, almost everybody I knew from high school that was going off to a university was going to be in a fraternity or sorority.  It was de rigueur in my world.  Naturally, therefore, I had to dig in my heels and revolt, righteously spouting words like “elitists” and “squares”.

animal house 2

So I set off to live in the “loser” dorm, where the non-sorority girls huddled together in their shame.  Or at least, some of them were huddling in shame, because a good many of them were there because they had tried for only one sorority, and that sorority had rejected them.  They had shot for the stars, usually the “best” sorority on campus, and had gone down in flames, landing in the loser dorm. At night, walking down the hall back from the showers, you could hear the muffled sobs produced by the destruction of these girls’ dreams of sisterly bliss and spring balls.

As a result of this, the loser dorm was a depressing place to be – at first.  Slowly, though, the like-minded started to band together.  The failed sorority sisters started to comfort each other, forming their own stiff-haired cliques, and the rest of us started to sort ourselves out as well – the athletic girls doing their sweaty, hearty afternoon activities in groups, the semi-married girls hanging out quietly together in their off-girlfriend-duty time, etc.  And me? What was my group, and how did we come together?

Well, it was all about the music, really. 😉

One day I passed by a long-haired girl walking down the hall wearing a tee-shirt with my favorite FM album rock station logo on it.  We struck up a friendship based at first on this one commonality, managed to switch roommates, and moved in together. We started playing our music, and our fellow rock-chicks heard the siren’s call and came forth.

Our little core group began trekking down to the French Market in New Orleans, about an hour and a half away, to get the bangles, beads, feathers, scarves, and other hippie gear that would enable our freak flag to fly.  And fly it did.  Crossing the quad, going to the commons and so forth – we were united and our mission was clear – to blow the collective mind of this buttoned-down microcosm and chart our own course.  Along the way, we started picking up fellow sojourners – the loser boys’ dorm was luckily right across the parking lot, and soon, our group was co-ed.  We eventually wound up with quite a large group that even peripherally included a couple of awesome professors, which influenced my future career choice and therefore, my entire life.

A motley group of musicians, art students, and liberal arts majors we were, but we felt free and independent and cool. Looking back now, I realize that all we did was create our own sorority/fraternity – a sorternity, if you will – one that reflected our own tastes and interests.  It was a wonderful thing and we had many, many great experiences related to music that I will be talking about in this blog.

But later, in graduate school, when the sorternity started to slowly disband and I began reaching out in friendship to other people, I learned that I had been wrong to classify all sorority girls as stiff-hairs.  Not only that, but I found that stiff hair doesn’t necessarily equate to a stiff brain.  I understood then that we had created our own brand of elitism and snobbery, a kind of reverse-snobbery.  It happens over and over – people revolt against some snobby, exclusive social group, so they create their own group, then they themselves become snobby and exclusive.  Meet the new boss; same as the old boss*.

So you may be asking, what has this to do with Janis?  Are you ever going to stop talking about yourself and get to the music?  Valid questions, my friend.  Janis Joplin, that little stick of Texas dynamite, could be a poster child for the independent spirit.  Raised in the conservative, east Texas town of Port Arthur, Janis was intelligent, different, outspoken, and not “pretty”.  In fact, when Janis was in college, a fraternity voted her “Ugliest Man on Campus”.  That’s right – ugliest MAN on campus.

In Concert (Janis Joplin album)

In Concert (Janis Joplin album) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Janis hurt; she hurt profoundly, and ultimately, her inner pain led to her early death.  But for a time, about four years, actually, she shone with such a fierce light, a light so powerful that it could illuminate the darkness of the rejected, the failure, the unlovely, and the unloved – and in the glow of this light, Janis was beautiful.  Despite all her doubt and insecurity, despite all the cruel insults and criticisms, she had the courage to get out there and do her thing – and do it very, very well.

Janis was our model when we were going down to the French Market to buy our baubles and beads.  As have so many young girls before and after us, we were imitating her because she represented independence, boldness, courage, freedom, and honesty.  Of course, we didn’t realize any of this at the time – we just wanted to distinguish ourselves from the stiff-hairs, but in retrospect, on a deeper level, we all desired each of these things that Janis represented.

I’m going to include my top three Janis songs.  All three of these songs were originally performed by other artists, but Janis’s bluesy, raspy, whiskey-soaked, cigarette-scorched interpretation brings out an entirely different vibe; one so powerful and emotional that it’s hard to imagine them being sung by anyone else.

Here’s a famous live version of “Cry Baby”, from 1970’s posthumously released album, “Pearl”.  Her pain and vulnerability is almost palpable in this performance; after all these years, it’s still there, recorded for all the world to see and hear.  C’mon and cry, cry, baby…

Our second song is one of her most popular, and for good reason. It bursts out at you with such energy and passion. “Piece of My Heart”, from 1968, “Cheap Thrills”, by Big Brother and the Holding Company.  I’m gonna show you, baby, that a woman can be tough…

This last song, “Summertime” was written by George Gershwin for the 1935 opera, “Porgy and Bess”. This is my favorite blues-rock performance by any female artist, ever, period.  Good heavens, she was great; one of a kind – never to be replicated.

Okay, I can’t stop – one more – it’s gotta be “Ball and Chain”, baby…


*That one was so easy, I’m not even going to ask if you caught it.  Bonus points for all my friends!  I wish Pete Townshend had been a member of the sorternity – he would have fit right in.  Come to think of it, though, he was there in a way.  Here’s The Who, doing “Won’t Get Fooled Again”; an outstanding, classic performance.  And the parting on the left is now the parting on the right…

Comments?  Want to talk about Janis?  College life?  Please share!



Filed under Music

6 responses to “Letting Our Freak Flag Fly: Janis Joplin and the Sorternity

  1. I grew up an awkward and alienated kid unfortunate enough to have the name Bobby McGhee. Let me tell ya, the added teasing I got when Janus’ similarly named song became a big hit kept me from discovering what an awesome talent she actually was until a couple of years after she died. The three songs you listed by her, in addition to Me and Bobby McGee, are my very favorite Janis Joplin songs. And, since I first heard it, that song by The Who has been the one song I think of every time I start feeling the pressure to follow the crowd…

  2. (themusic) Janis was the quintessential outsider, wasn’t she. I just love the part of the Monterey film where Janis is performing and there is a shot of Mama Cass in the audience with her mouth open. And I’m with you on ‘Cry Baby’. (thewhinge) I sold all my Joplin LPs when I bought the CDs. Now I just have these shitty plastic things. Poor me. (thefeedback) I was engaged, entertained, moved and amused by this piece. It’s my favourite since I’ve been Surmising. I think that’s because the struggle between belonging and individuation is eternal and unending. (hairspray) I don’t actually do hair at all so its mysteries remain just that. But I never liked stiff hair and was intrigued by your observation that it did not necessarily reflect internal organisation. There’s a PhD there somewhere.

  3. Hi Bruce, I’m so happy you liked this post – I really respect your opinions. This particular post means a lot to me because it’s about a very important and formative period of my life. Getting it down just right was a milestone in this “musical memoirs” journey that I’m taking.

    I know that shot of Mama Cass you are referring to; you know you’ve really got something good if you can put Cass in awe – she was awesome herself.

    On the references to “stiff-hair” – in that period, the late sixties through the early eighties, a girl’s hairstyle often reflected her social and cultural stance. More conventional-minded girls wore their hair “set and fixed”, like our mothers taught us, and the free-spirits wore their hair loose and untamed. Of course, as I point out in my post, this was a superficial, unfair, and inaccurate division, as I found out when I got a little older.

    There are so many things we can talk about from “our era”, aren’t there? The music played such a large role in everything that was going on – socially, culturally, politically, etc., and it’s all inter-related. Which means that a blog about music, like ours, can talk about almost anything. Pretty cool, huh? 😉

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