Freedom is just another word for nothin’ left to lose / Nothin’, don’t mean nothin’ hon’ if it ain’t free / And feelin’ good was easy, Lord, when he sang the blues / You know feelin’ good was good enough for me / Good enough for me and my Bobby McGee, plays the chorus of the blues-tinged rock standard, “Me and Bobby McGee.”
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While the song has warbled through many a famous throat, Janis Joplin made the tune her own. The rock goddess was far from the first to record the tune, but she was the first woman to take up the task of a rendition that would bring the song’s writer to tears.
Who Wrote It?
Famed country music torchbearer Kris Kristofferson penned the iconic tune. He discussed the song’s origins in conversation with Performing Songwriter, recalling that the title “Me and Bobby McGee” came first.
The title was thought up by producer and Monument Records founder Fred Foster. “He called one night and said, ‘I’ve got a song title for you. It’s ‘Me and Bobby McKee,’’ Kristofferson said. “I thought he said ‘McGee.’”
The singer went on to explain that Bobby McKee was a secretary who worked in the same building as Foster. “Then Fred says, ‘The hook is that Bobby McKee is a she. How does that grab you?’ I said, ‘Uh, I’ll try to write it, but I’ve never written a song on assignment.’ So it took me a while to think about.”
The inspiration, however, wasn’t far behind. “There was a Mickey Newbury song that was going through my mind – ‘Why You Been Gone So Long?'” Kristofferson said. “It had a rhythm that I really liked. I started singing in that meter.”
At that moment, a train of thought led him in a very specific direction. “For some reason, I thought of La Strada, this Fellini film,” he explained, “and a scene where [actor] Anthony Quinn is going around on this motorcycle and [actress] Giulietta Masina is the feeble-minded girl with him, playing the trombone. He got to the point where he couldn’t put up with her anymore and left her by the side of the road while she was sleeping.”
He continued, “Later in the film, he sees this woman hanging out the wash and singing the melody that the girl used to play on the trombone. He asks, ‘Where did you hear that song?’ And she tells him it was this little girl who had showed up in town, and nobody knew where she was from, and later she died. That night, Quinn goes to a bar and gets in a fight. He’s drunk and ends up howling at the stars on the beach.”
And so, “Me and Bobby McGee” was born, a lonesomely jangling tune about two drifters who eventually part ways on their long journey to nowhere.
“The first time I heard Janis Joplin’s version was right after she died,” Kristofferson said of the song’s most famed rendition, the 1971 version from Joplin’s posthumous release, Pearl. “Paul Rothchild, her producer, asked me to stop by his office and listen to this thing she had cut. Afterwards, I walked all over L.A., just in tears.”
Kristofferson would later pen a tribute to the singer with the song “Epitaph.”
Photo by Don Paulsen/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images