From Odetta to Obama
“Piece of My Heart” and Civil Rights
As the first American president to be born in the 1960s, Barack Obama evokes the energy of one of the most dynamic decades in the nation’s history. Beginning with the song “Piece of My Heart,” singer Janis Joplin’s most famous recording, this map follows the stories of several of the era’s leading musicians—and their surprising connections to one another and to a new generation of political leadership.
“Piece of My Heart” was the breakthrough single from Cheap Thrills (1968), the second album Janis Joplin made with Big Brother and the Holding Company. The song reached number one on the Billboard pop-music chart, remaining there for eight weeks. Yet Joplin’s version was not the first: “Piece of My Heart” was originally recorded in 1967 by Erma Franklin, the older sister of Aretha. Erma said she didn’t recognize the song through Joplin’s raspy vocals when she first heard this rendition on the radio.
In The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll, critic Ellen Willis compares Franklin’s measured interpretation to Joplin’s frenzied one: “When Franklin sings it, it is a challenge: No matter what you do to me, I will not let you destroy my ability to be human, to love. Joplin seems rather to be saying, Surely if I keep taking this, if I keep setting an example of love and forgiveness, surely he has to understand, change, give me back what I have given.” Willis regards Joplin’s style as part of the “war against limits” that fueled Joplin’s explosive performances—and the substance abuse that ended her life.
Called the voice of the civil rights movement, Odetta (born Odetta Holmes) sang at the March on Washington in 1963; walked in Selma, Alabama, with her fan Martin Luther King Jr.; and protested U.S. involvement in the Vietnam war. In her last days Odetta had a poster of president-elect Barack Obama in her hospital room and hoped to sing at his inauguration—she died six weeks too soon. Odetta also inspired a generation of singers, including Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Janis Joplin.
As a teenager, Joplin taught herself to sing by imitating Odetta’s recordings. In Scars of Sweet Paradise: The Life and Times of Janis Joplin, Alice Echols recounts when Joplin’s friends first heard her “do” Odetta: “Tired of listening to her friends butcher an Odetta song, Janis suddenly broke out in a voice that sounded like she’d conjured her up. The guys fell silent from the shock, ‘dumbfounded,’ recalls [Joplin’s high school pal Dave] Moriaty. ‘She just burst out and sounded exactly like Odetta. That showed us up. We used to sing folk songs on our way driving anywhere. Well, after that, we still did, but it wasn’t the same. We weren’t all in the same class anymore.’”
In a 1983 Rolling Stone interview, Joan Baez enthused, “Odetta was a goddess. Her passion moved me. I learned everything she sang.” In her memoir, And a Voice to Sing With, Baez describes her first encounter with the queen of folk music, which took place in the 1960s. “I was a nervous wreck waiting to see [Odetta] and was at the bar when I realized that she had arrived,” Baez writes. “I watched her for a minute from across the room. She was big as a mountain and black as night. Her skin looked like velvet. She wore massive earrings that dangled and swung and flashed, and her dress looked like a flowing embroidered tent.… Her chin jutted out round and full of dimples when she laughed, and I thought she was the most dignified person I’d ever seen. To overcome the panic welling up in my chest, I went up to her and flat out did an imitation of her singing ‘Another Man Done Gone.’ She looked surprised and then pleased, and then she enveloped me in her great velvet arms. I felt about six years old, and my heart didn’t get back to normal for a week.”
Folk-music legends Bob Dylan and Joan Baez were lovers in the early 1960s and remained collaborators through the 1970s. Baez covered numerous Dylan originals during her career, including a 1968 album composed entirely of Dylan’s works, Any Day Now. Perhaps her best-known song, the rueful “Diamonds and Rust” (1975), recounts their failed romantic relationship. Baez told The Huffington Post in a 2009 interview that she was in the process of writing this song about a different topic entirely when she was interrupted by Dylan, who telephoned to read her the lyrics to his new composition, “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts.” She turned Dylan’s phone call—dialed from “a booth in the Midwest”—into the opening of her song. When asked what the original topic was, Baez said, “I don’t remember, but it had nothing to do with what it ended up as.”
British heavy metal band Judas Priest recorded a cover of “Diamonds and Rust” in 1977, and the song became a staple of the group’s live performances. This shouldn’t seem odd, however; according to the group’s original singer, Al Atkins, the band took its name from the Dylan track “The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest.”
In an interview in the March 1978 issue of Playboy magazine, Bob Dylan recalls, “The first thing that turned me on to folk singing was Odetta. I heard a record of hers in a record store, back when you could listen to records right there in the store.… Right then and there, I went out and traded my electric guitar and amplifier for an acoustical guitar, a flat-top Gibson.… [The album Odetta Sings Ballads and Blues was] just something vital and personal. I learned all the songs on that record.”
In 1965, less than a decade after inspiring Dylan to become a folksinger, Odetta paid the young artist the ultimate compliment: recording a collection of 10 of his songs, Odetta Sings Dylan, only five years after his emergence on the folk scene. Hers was the second full album of Dylan covers, but it far eclipsed Linda Mason’s little-heard homage of the year before. In addition to a 10-minute version of “Mr. Tambourine Man,” Odetta included “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “The Times They Are A-Changin’” and “Masters of War”—sharp-tongued songs of protest and warning that helped awaken thousands of young Americans to the injustices of segregation and war.
More than 40 years after her rendition of “We Shall Overcome” at the March on Washington, Joan Baez came to perform it again in the White House’s East Room in February 2010, as part of a music series organized by first lady Michelle Obama. In keeping with the tradition of “We Shall Overcome,” Baez encouraged audience participation in her White House show. In a magical moment impossible to predict in 1963, the first family and assembled guests were chanting the words and swaying to the music as Baez played.
Baez spoke out in favor of Barack Obama during his 2008 Democratic primary contest against Hillary Clinton for the presidential nomination. She wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle on February 3, 2008, just days before the California primary, “Through all those years, I chose not to engage in party politics.… At this time, however, changing that posture feels like the responsible thing to do. If anyone can navigate the contaminated waters of Washington, lift up the poor and appeal to the rich to share their wealth, it is Sen. Barack Obama.”
Bob Dylan discusses Barack Obama in a 2009 interview with The Times of London. “He’s got an interesting background,” Dylan says. “He’s like a fictional character, but he’s real. First off, his mother was a Kansas girl. Never lived in Kansas, though, but with deep roots. You know, like Kansas bloody Kansas. John Brown the insurrectionist.… Bushwhackers, Guerrillas. Wizard of Oz Kansas. I think Barack has Jefferson Davis back there in his ancestry someplace. And then his father. An African intellectual. Bantu, Masai, Griot-type heritage—cattle raiders, lion killers. I mean, it’s just so incongruous that these two people would meet and fall in love. You kind of get past that, though. And then you’re into [Barack’s] story. Like an odyssey, except in reverse.”
Describing Obama’s memoir, Dreams From My Father, Dylan continues, “His writing style hits you on more than one level. It makes you feel and think at the same time, and that is hard to do.” When asked if Obama will make a good president, Dylan avers, “I have no idea. He’ll be the best president he can be. Most of those guys come into office with the best of intentions and leave as beaten men.”