The True Story Behind Janis Joplin’s “Me and Bobby McGee”

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Janis Joplin Me and Bobby McGee

The only number one single recorded by Janis Joplin is the timeless , “Me and Bobby McGee” from the album Pearl (1971) released after she died from a drug overdose the year before.  Joplin remains one of the true symbols from the sixties, while her most famous song could be an anthem of the one of the most polarizing generations in American history. Though Janis Joplin has received the most notoriety for the classic she, to the surprise of many, did not actually write or originally record the song.

Kris Kristofferson is the original troubadour behind “Me and Bobby McGee,” originally recorded in July, 1969 by country singer Roger Miller, though the famous title of the song was not actually Kristoffersons’ idea.

“Me and Bobby McGee” was born after he received a call from Monument Records founder Fred Foster, who called him and said that he had an idea for a song called “Me and Bobby McKee.”  Apparently, Bobby McKee was secretary of Boudleaux Bryant who worked in the same office with Fred.

The original Bobby McGee was written as a woman, and if Kristofferson would have heard Foster more clearly Janis Joplin would have been singing the chorus to Me and Bobby McKee, but obviously that never came to fruition.

Kris had never been asked to write a song based on an idea from somebody else, but he said that he would give it a shot, since he was young and still trying to make it in the music industry. In addition, he already had a Mickey Newbury song in mind that he had been toying with, “Why You Been Gone So Long?”  This helped him to establish the time signature that he wanted to use for the song.

The framework for the story was derived from a Fellini film, La Strada, where (for those who have never seen the movie) a portion of the plot pertains to a central male character (Anthony Quinn) traveling on a motorcycle with a below average intelligence female (Giulietta Masina) who relentlessly plays the same tune on a trombone.  Eventually, he reaches his breaking point with the girl, waits until she falls asleep, and leaves her by the side of the road. He of course no longer has to deal with the extra responsibility of dealing with the girl anymore, but guilt builds within him over the years for leaving her behind. 

Towards the end of the film the man hears a woman humming the song the girl used to incessantly play on her trombone, with hope he asks her where she heard that song only to find that it was from a girl that was found lost and alone in town one day and then died soon after.  That night the guy gets hammered, gets in a fight, and yells at the heavens how foolish and selfish he had been.

Kristofferson explains that this is what he meant at the end of Me and Bobby McGee when he said, “freedom is just another word for nothin’ left to lose.” Freedom is not always free; the man gained freedom from leaving her behind, but it tortured him for a lifetime.

Joplin and Kristofferson were once known to be lovers, but the exact details of that relationship are not explicitly known. There are versions of their love story where the end was messy, involving Janis Joplin threatening a heroin relapse if Kristofferson were to leave her.

Janis Joplin’s version of the famous song did not reach Kristofferson until after she died, but if he did in fact leave her because he was tired of the lifestyle she was living-sounds pretty close to what happened in the movie that was it’s inspiration.

I have heard many times that he wrote this song FOR or ABOUT Janis Joplin and that may be true, but the mystery is part of what continues to propel the legacy of a song written almost 50-years ago. 

Written for her or about her, Kristofferson has said that every time he hears “Me and Bobby McGee” it reminds him of his friend Janis Joplin.

Chris McDonald

 

 

 

 

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