Janis Joplin recorded the beautifully penned Kris Kirstofferson vagabond odyssey “Me and Bobby McGee” in September, 1970. She died just a few days later.
“Busted flat in Baton Rouge, waitin’ for a train
When I’s feelin’ near as faded as my jeans
Bobby thumbed a diesel down just before it rained
And rode us all the way into New Orleans”
Kristofferson came to Nashville to make his name in country music in the mid-1960’s. Though his family would have preferred him to become an army officer or a college professor, he instead found work as a janitor in a recording studio so he could pursue a country music career, and soon found himself surrounded by some of the finest musicians of the day. He became friends with the professional musicians he would meet, and he swept and mopped, and he began to write songs. He began to write great songs, and he released his first album in 1970. Johnny Cash covered the amazing “Sunday Morning Coming Down” and then Janis Joplin found Bobby McGee.
“I pulled my harpoon out of my dirty red bandana
I’s playin’ soft while Bobby sang the blues
Windshield wipers slappin’ time
I’s holdin’ Bobby’s hand in mine
We sang every song that driver knew”
Janis Joplin had spent the latter part of the 1960’s finding her voice playing with different collections of musicians in different musical traditions. Though she was from Texas, she spent much of her time in Northern California. She hung out with the Grateful Dead. She played the Monterey Pop Festival. She explored the traditions of blues, folk and country music and painfully and honestly bared her soul on stage night after night.
Joplin was not the first artist to record “Me and Bobby McGee,” but it will forever be imprinted with her lonely, honest voice. Beginning with just a couple of measures of acoustic guitar, Joplin starts to tell the story of the journey with Bobby McGee. Kristofferson did not give the narrator of the song a name or gender, so in many ways the story is for you tell. We are all traveling with Bobby McGee. You are traveling with Bobby McGee.
By the second verse, the entire band comes in to play. They play easy and quiet, but they are definitely along for the ride. As we find ourselves in the front seat of the truck with the driver and Bobby we feel the freedom and independence of just picking up and heading out on the road.
“Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose
Nothin’, it ain’t nothin’ honey, 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”
Together on the road, we learn with Bobby. We see the sights of the country with Bobby, and we share our secrets with Bobby. We keep each other warm, symbolically or physically. We are warm, and the country is ours. We are young. We are alive and free. All that we see belongs to us.
“From the Kentucky coal mines to the California sun
Yeah, Bobby shared the secrets of my soul
Through all kinds of weather, through everything we done
Yeah, Bobby baby kept me from the cold”
The song and the story is about youth, freedom, and the ability to do exactly what we want to do. But sadly, all good things must come to an end.
“One day up near Salinas, Lord, I let him slip away
He’s lookin’ for that home and I hope he finds it
Well, I’d trade all my tomorrows for one single yesterday
To be holdin’ Bobby’s body next to mine”
In describing another song of Kris Kristofferson’s, a country music contemporary of his said “We knew all those words before, we just didn’t know what order they should be until Kris wrote them down.”
To hear the story of Bobby McGee end on this solemn, reflective note, and to understand that “I’d trade in all my tomorrows for one single yesterday” is among the last words ever sung by Janis Joplin makes the song that much more melancholy. That much more tragic.
It is worthwhile to note that Kristofferson wrote the song upon the suggestion of record label owner Fred Foster. Kristofferson misheard his suggestion to write a song based on his secretary’s name Roberta McKee. Either way, Kristofferson was glad for the inspiration as he gave Foster half of the song writing royalties in appreciation.
Joplin died of a drug overdose on October 4, 1970, during the recording of what would become Pearl, her last album. “Me and Bobby McGee” became the number one song in March of 1971.
Janis Joplin was 27 years old when she died. And just like other musicians who died too young, just like Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain, Buddy Holly and so many more, we wish we could have seen where they went next. We wish we could have heard their next song, or gone to their next concert. We wish we could have seen the gray hair, and the few extra pounds.
Joplin never performed the song live, but here is an amazing 1990 performance of the song by The Highwaymen, featuring Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash. Watch the whole thing. Time well spent.
“Me and Bobby McGee”
Written by Kris Kristofferson and Fred Foster
Performed by Janis Joplin
Released January 12, 1971