On August 16, 1969, Janis Joplin sauntered onto the stage to play her delayed, but historic set at the three day Woodstock Music and Art Fair in Bethel, New York. Attended by over a half a million people, Woodstock was a defining moment in both music and counterculture history. With her peacock-like psychedelic style, assaulting blues vocals, and earth-shaking swagger, Joplin was already a symbol of women’s liberation by the time she catapulted to superstardom on that stage.
Born in 1943 in the Texas town of Port Arthur, Joplin was bullied in high school for the same unconventional looks that would eventually propel her to rock god status. She ended up in the Haight Ashbury music scene in San Francisco, unable to escape the pull of her blues singing talent. Joplin established her bonafides as a musical force at the Monterey International Pop Festival in 1967 with her band, Big Brother and the Holding Company. Two years later, she embarked on a solo career. By the time performed at Woodstock, alighting the stage at 2 am, Joplin was in the thrall of a heroin addiction that would ultimately kill her a year later, in 1970, at age 27.
Joplin’s set list at Woodstock included two of her iconic hits, “Try (Just A Little Bit Harder)” and “Piece of My Heart.” Most of Joplin’s songs were covers, but the paradox of power and pain in her music captured a generation coming of age during the free love movement and the violent Vietnam War quagmire. Though her groundbreaking rock career was short-lived, Joplin forged a path for other female performers like Madonna and Lady Gaga whose careers are defined by taking to the stage on their own terms.