Janis Joplin & Jorma Kaukonen’s ‘Typewriter Tape’

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Jorma Kaukonen and Janis Joplin in 1964

Before there was Big Brother and the Holding Company, before there was Jefferson Airplane, there were Janis Joplin and Jorma Kaukonen, two lovers of the blues. And there was a typewriter.

But more about that in a minute.

The San Francisco rock music scene of the ’60s didn’t begin in San Francisco. Many of the musicians who would soon be forming psychedelic rock bands and packing venues like the Fillmore Auditorium and the Avalon Ballroom had their roots in the acoustic folk and blues scene on the Peninsula, the area south of San Francisco encompassing cities like Palo Alto, Santa Clara and San Mateo.

Jerry Garcia was a popular bluegrass singer and banjo picker in the area before he met Bob Weir and the others and formed a rock band. Paul Kantner, soon to co-found the Airplane, and David Freiberg, who would co-pilot Quicksilver Messenger Service, were locally popular too, and David Crosby would spend considerable time there before heading south to L.A. and meeting Jim (later Roger) McGuinn and the others who called themselves the Byrds.

Janis Joplin had left her home in Port Arthur, Texas, for California in early 1963, determined to scrape together whatever she could singing the blues. Those who heard her, even at that early stage of her career, recognized immediately that this woman had a special gift, that she had absorbed and customized the bawdy blues of the great female blues singers like Big Mama Thornton and Bessie Smith.

Related: Janis joins Big Brother, June 1966

She’d first sung publicly around the University of Texas at Austin in 1962, and recorded a track called “What Good Can Drinkin’ Do” late that year, but Texas wasn’t the place for someone as rebellious and just plain different as she. In the Bay Area she found a receptive audience and fellow musicians who shared her love for music that was real, music that told of life in a way that the hit pop songs of the day did not.

One of her fellow acolytes was Jorma Kaukonen, a Washington, D.C.-born singer and acoustic guitarist a few years her senior. Kaukonen had lived in several different parts of the world while growing up—his father was employed by the State Department—and had already attended Antioch College in Ohio, where he’d become enamored of fingerpicking-style guitar, a technique he continued to develop when he moved west to go to Santa Clara University. There he quickly made a name for himself as a purveyor of authentic blues, playing solo in the coffeehouses, counting among his fans the transplanted Texan who shared his affection for the raw African-American music form.

In June 1964, with both booked to perform at a benefit gig at San Francisco’s Coffee Gallery, Janis arrived for a rehearsal at the apartment Jorma rented on Fremont Street in Santa Clara with his Swedish wife Margareta. Kaukonen owned a tape recorder and turned it on to capture their duets, six (known) songs in all: “Trouble in Mind,” “Kansas City Blues,” “Hesitation Blues,” “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out,” “Daddy, Daddy, Daddy” (a Joplin original) and “Long Black Train Blues.” (Kaukonen has speculated that there were eight more songs recorded, but those have never surfaced.)

Related: Jorma Kaukonen’s Ain’t In No Hurry album reviewed

Janis Joplin in the early 1960s

Even pre-fame, both artists were quite accomplished. “Janis was at her best,” Kaukonen later told writer David McGee. “As for me, without being too self-serving, when I hear tapes from those days, I say, ‘I was pretty good, for a young guitar player from Washington, D.C.’”

The six tracks began circulating among collectors on bootleg recordings in the ’70s under the name “The Typewriter Tape.”

Why typewriter? Simple: Throughout the recording of the guitar and vocals, that’s the only other sound that is heard. Off in another corner of the room, Margareta had been typing a letter to her parents back home. Although her pecking away was oddly percussive in spots, and some fans have speculated that Jorma’s wife was attempting to join in on the music-making, Kaukonen told McGee, “I find the thought that the typewriter was a percussion instrument somewhat laughable considering the obvious lack of observable rhythm.”

“Trouble In Mind” and “Hesitation Blues,” appeared on a Janis Joplin boxed set, Janis, in 1998. All of the music is easily found on YouTube (scroll down to hear it).

Jorma Kaukonen in the early ’60s

A year after the acoustic recording was made, Jorma Kaukonen would run into Paul Kantner in San Francisco. Along with singer Marty Balin, they would start a rock band, something Jorma—although he’d played rock in his teens—had no real interest in doing until he actually did it. He is now a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee with Jefferson Airplane and has co-led Hot Tuna with former Airplane bassist Jack Casady for nearly 50 years.

As for Janis, life quickly became difficult in the mid-’60s, as drugs and alcohol began to take a toll on her. In May 1965, she returned to Port Arthur where, for a time, she tried the straight life, although she stayed with the music, cutting a handful of tracks in a studio and performing for anyone who’d listen. Still, she knew, as she did before, that Texas wasn’t the place for her, and she returned to the Bay Area, where she was introduced to the guys who called themselves Big Brother and the Holding Company. It wasn’t long before the world knew her name.

Listen to the complete “Typewriter Tapes” featuring Janis Joplin and Jorma Kaukonen

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Jeff Tamarkin

Jeff Tamarkin

Best Classic Bands Editor Jeff Tamarkin has been one of the most respected and prolific music journalists in the country for some four decades. He was editor of Goldmine for 15 years, the first editor of CMJ and Grateful Dead Comix, and an editor of Relix magazine. He has written for dozens of publications including Billboard, Newsweek, Playbill, Creem, Mojo, Newsday, New York Daily News JazzTimes and others, and has contributed to the Guinness Encyclopedia of Popular Music and All-Music Guide. He has written the liner notes for more than 80 CDs, including most of the Jefferson Airplane catalog as well as the Beach Boys, Merle Haggard, Tom Jones, Chubby Checker, Al Kooper and the J. Geils Band.

Jeff has also served on the Nominating Committee of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and as a consultant to the Grammys. As a consultant to the Music Club CD label, he assisted in releasing over 180 reissues and compilations, in styles ranging from jazz to country to pop. His first book was Got a Revolution! The Turbulent Flight of Jefferson Airplane (published in June 2003) – the first biography of this legendary San Francisco band written with the cooperation of all of the band members. He is also the co-author of Shell Shocked: My Life with the Turtles, Flo and Eddie, and Frank Zappa, etc, with Howard Kaylan. From 2002 to 2006 Jeff was the editor of Global Rhythm, the leading magazine for world music and global culture. He was the Associate Editor of JazzTimes from 2008-16. He lives in Hoboken, NJ, with his wife, the novelist and Boston Globe book columnist Caroline Leavitt. Their son, Max, is a theater major at Pace University in New York.
Jeff Tamarkin
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  1. Mike L
    #1 Mike L 21 May, 2017, 02:19

    Wow. I’ve never heard this before. It’s awesome hearing Jorma and Janis diggin deep into the blues before they were famous. Thanks for posting this.

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