Welcome back once again to “Church of Christ Celebrities”! If you’re new to the blog, check out the About page and the four previous entries in the series, and let me know what you think on the Contact page. As always, if you like what you read, share it with your friends, and suggest another celebrity for me while you’re at it!
Today’s subject, the famed singer Janis Joplin, is perhaps best known in religious circles for her powerful worship song, “Mercedes Benz”: “Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz?/My friends all drive Porsches, I must make amends.”
(I kid, I kid; the song is actually a tongue-in-cheek takedown of consumer culture, though it is certainly one of her most famous tunes.)
In all seriousness, Joplin was known primarily for her powerful voice, featured on songs like “Me and Bobby McGee,” and for her tragic death at the age of 27. For our purposes, she is also frequently featured on lists of supposed “Church of Christ celebrities,” and so we’ll examine the religious affiliation of the troubled troubadour–after this musical interlude, that is.
As with our last entry, the evidence regarding the connection between Janis Joplin and Churches of Christ is shaky, aside from lists which simply assert that there was a connection. One article from a music magazine does at least make the claim that the Joplin family “regularly attended services at the local Church of Christ.” (1)
The remainder of the evidence, however, points in a slightly different direction. A feature story in TexasMonthly about public commemoration of Joplin in her hometown of Port Arthur, Texas, notes that “The impression these objects leave is that of a thoroughly conventional girl, one who sang in the church choir… These tokens represent only a sliver of the woman.” (2) The reference to a church choir should catch the reader’s attention, as Churches of Christ typically feature congregational a cappella worship.
Another article on Port Arthur’s attempts to honor its hometown celebrity offers us further insight, claiming that Joplin’s childhood church was the First Christian Church of Port Arthur and that she “sang in the youth choir” there. (3)
Our most important source, however, is a 1954 photograph of the First Christian Church’s youth choir.
([First Christian Church Youth Choir 1954], photograph, December 26, 1954;(texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth34931/: accessed August 25, 2017), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, texashistory.unt.edu; crediting First Christian Church of Port Arthur.)
The notes on the above website incorrectly identify Joplin’s birth year as 1940, but they correctly spot a young Joplin “on the second row, second from the left.” (4)
As it turns out, then, Joplin’s upbringing was in the Christian Church/Disciples of Christ, a tradition which, like Churches of Christ, traces its historical roots to the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement of the nineteenth century. By the slimmest of margins, then, this week’s supposed “Church of Christ celebrity” is DEBUNKED. (Two entries in a row, no less.)
Check back in a couple of weeks for our most hifalutin article yet as we examine the connection between the alliteratively-named artist (and fellow Port Arthur native) Robert Rauschenberg and the Churches of Christ.
(1) Mike Greenblatt, “Janis Joplin, forever young and forever tragic,” Goldmine: The Music Collector’s Magazine, September 26, 2012, accessed August 25, 2017, http://www.goldminemag.com/articles/janis-joplin-forever-young-and-forever-tragic .
(2) Robert Draper, “O Janis,” TexasMonthly, October 1992, accessed August 25, 2017, http://www.texasmonthly.com/articles/o-janis/ .
(3) Lana Berkowitz, “Port Arthur embraces Janis Joplin on her 65th birthday,” January 16, 2008, accessed August 25, 2017, http://www.chron.com/entertainment/music/article/Port-Arthur-embraces-Janis-Joplin-on-her-65th-1566842.php .
(4) “First Christian Church Youth Choir 1954,” The Portal to Texas History, December 26, 1954, accessed August 25, 2017, https://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth34931/ .