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

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Janis Joplin and her final group, the Full Tilt Boogie Band, perform at the Festival for Peace at Shea Stadium. Photo by Tom Copi/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Music is the one single element that has withstood the test of time. It’s no wonder whenever we hear a beat or tempo; we automatically get into a rhythmic motion. Here’s one song that will surely bring back the good old days. June 1969 was the year that the epic song ‘Me and Bobby McGee’ was conceptualized, and transformed the genre of country music by fusing the art of storytelling with the great classic tempos of its time. In fact, this timeless classic has quite the intriguing history, and without further ado, in celebration of its greatness, we’re here to tell it.

How Did it All Begin

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Photo of Kris Kristofferson Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Our epic journey kickstarts in the confines of Kris Kristofferson’s mind, shortly after receiving a phone call from Fred Foster, the founder of Monument Records. At the time that Fred Foster made the call, Kristofferson was a struggling musician signed to Fred’s label. In fact, Kristofferson was just about to head off to Nashville for his on-the-side helicopter job when Fred briefed him on a great song idea he had in mind.

The song was to be ‘Me and Bobby McKee, though Kristofferson recalls thinking he heard ‘McGee.’

Half-heartedly, Kristofferson agreed to write the song, though he later admits that it took him quite a while to come up with all the facets of the classic. One that would then be sung by Janis Joplin, the version that would be highly revered among Country music aficionados and casual listeners today.

It’s Not a He it’s a She

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Photo of Boudleaux Bryant (Center) Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

For many years, it’s been thought that Kristofferson initially used this love song to pay tribute to Janis Joplin, as she happened to record it a few days before her death. The song instantly became a worldwide sensation and was bound to be performed by artists for decades to come. However, no one at the time knew that Bobby was a woman.

In fact, it was just until an article published by the “Songwriter Magazine” revealed that the name McGee was meant to be McKee. The claims of the published article were later confirmed to be true.

So what’s the backstory? Well, it turns out that Bobby McKee was the secretary to Boudleaux Bryant, a composer and a friend of Foster with whom they worked in the same building. Occasionally, Bryant would taunt Foster that the only reason he came to his office was to see Barbara. At the time, Barbara was the 29-year-old secretary to Bryant, and who went by the nickname, Bobby. In response to the teases, Foster gave his word to make a song about Bobby.

That’s when he contacted Kristofferson and requested him to write the song about the lady.

The Thought Process

The Thought Process

Mickey Newbury (Photo by Tom Hill/WireImage)

At the time of his critical thought process regarding the song, Kristofferson said he had been persistently hearing a Mickey Newbury song ‘Why You Been Gone So Long,’ playing in the back of his mind. Moreover, since it happened to have a rhythm he enjoyed, he began singing in an identical meter. With that, came the birth of the official tune for the song ‘Me and Bobby McGee.

The First Release by Roger Miller

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Roger Miller. (Photo by Kirk West/Getty Images)

Because the song’s initial focus was that of a man singing to his woman, the song was first awarded to Roger Miller in 1969, who proceeded to record it.

Upon its release, it was an instant hit and is to date etched as one of the 12 greatest country songs in the United States. However, it is Janis Joplin’s version of this song that propelled it to such stardom and made ‘Me and Bobby McGee’ uber famous.

The Heartbreaking Release by Janis Joplin

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Janis Joplin and Big Brother & The Holding Company. (Photo by Malcolm Lubliner/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

In a cruel twist of fate, the most famous and critically acclaimed version of the song was recorded by Janis Joplin a few days before her unfortunate passing. Gearing up for the release of her second album ‘Pearl’ Janis died from a heroin overdose.

Her inadvertent death leads to the album receiving much attention, and in the process, ‘Pearl’ skyrocketed to #1 on the charts. In fact, it became the second song in the United States to peak at #1 after the singer had passed away. The first incident was that of ‘Dock of the Bay’ that was sung by Otis Redding.

Foster Hears Joplin’s Version

Foster Hears Joplin’s Version

(L-R): Honorees Kris Kristofferson, Fred Foster, and Willie Nelson. (Photo by Erika Goldring/Getty Images)

Though Fred Foster admitted to being a big fan of Janis Joplin at the time, he wasn’t sure she could sing anything outside her genre of Rock music. He had no idea whatsoever that Joplin had taken up the song and performed it for her second album ‘Pearl, which was released shortly after her unfortunate passing.

In fact, Foster recalls hearing Joplin’s take soon after she died in 1970, when Paul Rothschild, Joplin’s producer, had given him a call and requested him to sample her recording.

Mesmerized by her delicate voice and stunned by her brilliant performance, Foster could do nothing but shudder at the thought of such an angelic voice never having the opportunity to sing again. In his own words, “Man, what a waste.”

So touched and traumatized was he by the events that had transpired that he couldn’t even listen to the record without breaking up. It took a series of playbacks for him to listens sans crying and wishing he could have experienced this in person.

The Message of the Song

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Mexican-born actor Anthony Quinn (1915 – 2001) playing Zampano, in a still from director Federico Fellini’s film, ‘La Strada’. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Me and Bobby McGee samples it’s storytelling from the classic 1954 film La Strada, by Federico Fellini. This song summarizes in just under four minutes and 31 seconds, what a series of books over hundreds of pages long, and a movie that took up two hours in length, attempts to say.

The song successfully pieces in the facets of the classic American road story. A tale that has been relived and retold countless times in quite some ways, so much so that it’s safe to say it constitutes its genre.

Moreover, it’s a bittersweet telling of nostalgia, coupled with the longing of the American terrain, dealing with other vital themes such as the loss of lovers, loss of friends, and the loss of youthful dreams.

Verse One – Headin’ for the Trains

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Photo by © Ted Streshinsky/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

The first verse of the song talks about the two travelers being pretty exhausted and having to wait for a train as their first means of passage. However, they change their mind and decide to hitch-hike to New Orleans.

As they do so, lady luck comes their way as they are saved by a truck driver when a heavy downpour was just about to commence, and they begin to make their way to New Orleans.

During the journey, they sing the blues, and the driver, who happens to know all the songs they are singing, joins in the melody as well.

Coincidentally, the characters in the song have a close semblance to Joplin’s personality, who was occasionally observed as a free spirit. Moreover, it only fits that her name is closely tied to the radiance of the record.

Verse Two – Bobby Shared the Secrets of My Soul

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Photo by Getty Images/Getty Images

The second verse time warps us to a period whereby the speaker reminisces on the days she spent on the road traveling with Bobby, up until the time they traversed the cross-country, moving from Tennessee to California.

This can be observed in the middle section of the story, whereby the narrator and Bobby bore their souls to each other and in turn, formed quite the intimate bond.

Moreover, they did this purely “through all kinds of weather’; referring to both the means as well as sad experiences, which regardless, made her feel warm and safe.

Verse 3 – Freedom’s Just Another Word

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Janis Joplin with her 1965 Porsche 356C Cabriolet. The car features a psychedelic paint job by Joplin’s roadie, Dave Richards. (Photo by RB/Redferns)

The third verse kicks off with one of the song’s most iconic lines and, in many people’s view, one of the greatest lyrics ever written: “Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose”. This line almost serves as a microcosm of the entire song, conveying its entire meaning in just a handful of words. The entirety of ‘Me and Bobby McGee’ is about this central theme of freedom.

Bobby is clearly the sort of person who doesn’t want anything tying them down and

needs to be constantly moving, and this is exactly what Bobby and the singer do throughout the duration of the song. This line shows that the only way to attain true freedom is to have nothing holding you back, no friends or family or possessions. Essentially, the line is stating that if you have nothing to lose, you can do whatever you want and feel truly free as you have no obligations or debts to anybody.

Verse 4 – Bobby Shared the Secrets of my Soul

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Guitarist Mike Bloomfield rehearses with Janis Joplin and her new backing band the Kozmic Blues Band at the Stax Records studio on December 20, 1968, in Memphis Tennessee. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

The theme of movement continues in the fourth verse as the pair travel from Kentucky all the way through to California, and the imagery of moving from a “coal mine” to the “sun” suggests some kind of enlightenment or illumination on behalf of both the narrator and Bobby too.

The narrator speaks of how the pair exchange secrets and stories, telling each other about “everything we done”, and adding that “Bobby baby kept me from the cold”, which also implies a sense of warmth and enlightenment. For the singer, Bobby has been a bright and beautiful presence during their time together.

Verse 5 – I Let Him Slip Away

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Tina Turner and Janis Joplin singing together at unknown concert venue; Tina, in a dress by Dorothy Morgan, was on tour with the Rolling Stones; Janis is wearing a white fur hat. (Photo by Condé Nast via Getty Images)

It’s in the fifth verse that the couple goes their separate ways. In “Salinas”, to be exact is where Bobby heads off in search of a “home”. The singer bears no grudge against Bobby for her departure and this verse calls back to the “Freedom” line earlier on in the song as we see once again that Bobby is the sort of person who won’t let anyone tie them down, even a lover.

Bobby’s departure is sudden and swift, and it’s hard to know how the character really felt towards the singer. The singer themselves, on the other hand, is heartbroken to have lost Bobby. They sing about trading “all of my tomorrows, for a single yesterday”, implying that they’d give up the rest of their life just to live one more day with Bobby by their side. It’s a powerfully romantic line and one of the best moments in the song for showing how strongly the singer feels for Bobby.

Verse 6 – Feelin’ Good was Good Enough for Me

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Photo of Janis Joplin at the Monterey Pop Festival (Photo by Paul Ryan/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

The sixth verse brings us right back to that famous line: “Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose”. Only this time, it’s the narrator who has been left with nothing, rather than Bobby. Earlier on in the song, this line was almost romantic and idealistic, talking about a perfect life in which one could be 100% free by having nothing tying them down. In this verse, however, we feel that the singer isn’t happy at all to be left alone since, as they stated in the fifth verse, they’d give up almost anything to have Bobby back in their life.

The verse continues with repetitions of earlier lines in which the narrator talks of how easy it was for them to feel good by Bobby’s side. The theme of freedom has percolated throughout the entire narrative of the song, and we’ve seen both the good and bad sides that total liberty can provide. In this verse, the song starts to end on a bitter and tragic note as we realize that perhaps the idea of freedom and having “nothin’ left to lose” isn’t as fulfilling as it sounds.

The Song Conclusion

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Janis Joplin performs at the Monterey Pop Festival. (Photo by © Ted Streshinsky/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

Unfortunately, the song ends on quite a sad note. Perhaps worn out by the road, Bobby decides to separate with the speaker, with the aspiration of settling down and having a stable home. The speaker herself proceeds to wish Bobby all the best and insists against settling down. In turn, she picks herself half-heartedly, and continues to soldier on with her life on the road albeit knowing deep down that without Bobby; she can never truly find happiness in it again.

Janis Joplin- A real-life Road Story

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Photo by Tom Copi/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

As stated earlier, Janis Joplin’s life story has an uncanny semblance to the story of the song. Janis was an iconic hippie at a period where the culture was quite prevalent in the United States.

Not only that, she had spent most of her life as one big road trip, having her roots in Texas before her abrupt death due to a heroin overdose in 1970.

Her early life consisted of growing up in the confines of Port Arthur in Texas. That being said, it was crystal clear that she never felt like she was home there.

At that time, she was insecure, not yet conscious of the vocal power she would soon possess onstage, propelling her to heights of stardom. Moreover, she felt that she didn’t integrate well with the rest of the conservative community she lived with.

Trying to Keep it Normal

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Janis Joplin at home in San Francisco, circa 1967. (Photo by © Ted Streshinsky/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

However, Joplin’s attempt to live a normal life and conform to the regular structure of society was short-lived, as she found herself attracted to Austin; where she commuted on a regular basis to play shows; accompanied by her longtime companion, the acoustic guitar.

Eventually, she caught the eye of a man by the name of Chet Helms, who at the time, was the manager of a psychedelic rock band by the name Big Brother and the Holding Company.

Moreover, for the second time, Joplin abandoned her studies, this time not looking back. Furthermore, quitting any aspirations of ever leading a conventional lifestyle.

She returned to San Francisco back with Helms, where she began singing with the band. As the lead singer of Big Brother and the Holding Company, they traversed the country and performing in some gigs.

A Tragic End

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(Photo by Tucker Ransom/Archive Photos/Getty Images)

In an interview with Dick Cavett, Joplin said that she didn’t savor the road as much as people thought she did, and simply considered it as one of the ways she had to pay for her love of playing music for a living.

For Joplin, settling down was not an option for her, as it meant putting her thriving music career on hold (similar to the theme of leaving the road and settling down). Without music, Joplin felt like she had nothing else to lose. Hence, she continued.

In fact, during these long and pretty exhausting trips, she thought longingly of her friends and family and occasionally indulged in drugs and alcohol in excess. However, through it all, it seemed that the music sustained her.

Unfortunately, she took her last breath after overdosing on heroin in 1970.

Jerry Lee Lewis’ Version of Me and Bobby McGee

Several months after the release of Joplin’s version of the song, Jerry Lee Lewis also did a cover, with a more country-like style and theme coming into play. When the version was released, it charted at number 40 in the United States. Perhaps one of the reasons why it did not have such a massive reception was the fact that it lacked a resemblance to the original regarding the style that was used.

Additional Covers

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American musician Kenny Rogers performs at the Rosemont Horizon, Rosemont, Illinois, July 10, 1981. (Photo by Paul Natkin/Getty Images)

Astonishingly, the original Roger Miller song was covered a total of nine separate times before Janis Joplin’s version was even released. The likes of Kenny Rogers, Charley Pride, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Gordon Lightfood, and Bill Haley & His Comets all performed the song for various albums of their own from 1969 through to 1971. Perhaps most notably, Kris Kristofferson himself actually recorded his own personal version of Me and Bobby McGee for his self-titled debut album, Kristofferson.

More Covers Over the Years

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The Grateful Dead (L-R Ron ‘Pigpen’ McKernan, Jerry Garcia, Bill Kreutzmann, Phil Lesh and Bob Weir) perform onstage at The Family Dog in February 1970 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Robert Altman/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

After Janis Joplin’s version of the song was released, the covers just kept coming and have continued into the modern era. Jerry Lee Lewis was one of the first artists to give the song his own twist after Joplin’s tragic death, while the rock band The Grateful Dead also enjoyed some success with their slightly jauntier, upbeat version of the classic song.

Even the legendary Johnny Cash, best known for songs like Ring of Fire and A Boy Named Sue, gave the song a twist for his live På Österåker album in 1972. Chet Akins, Waylon Jennings, Olivia Newton-John, and even several European talents like Cornelis Vreeswijk and Gianna Nannini covered the song too, with the latter two artists rewriting the lyrics into their own languages of Swedish and Italian, respectively.

Modern Covers

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Photo of Dolly Parton (Photo by David Redfern/Redferns)

As the years went by and the style of music shifted in the 1980s and 1990s, the number of covers of the song started to die down, but Me and Bobby McGee made a bit of a comeback in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Artists like LeAnn Rimes, Anne Murray, Jennifer Love Hewitt, Pink, and iconic country music star Dolly Parton gave their own twists on the classic tale of Bobby McGee as well.

Various other international singers have taken on the song and converted into additional languages like Afrikaans and Hebrew, truly helping to cement Me and Bobby McGee as a global classic. Dozens and dozens of artists have covered the song for their own albums or simply performed it live from time to time because they love it so much, and the sheer volume of covers pays testament to what a genuinely timeless and beloved song it really is.

Joplin’s Magnum Opus

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Photo of Janis Joplin (Photo by GAB Archive/Redferns)

Here’s an intriguing fact, did you know that this was the only song from Joplin that became a Top 10 hit? Though she was quite a well-known singer and very much influential, it was duly-noted that Joplin had a bluesy sound in quite a majority of her songs, which at the time was not the most trending genre of music. Consequently, this kept her out of the top 10 until ‘Me and Bobby McGee’ came along.

A Talent Taken too Soon

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American rock band The Doors mirror their looks for a photo shoot, 1967. They are vocalist Jim Morrison, keyboardist Ray Manzarek, drummer John Densmore, and guitarist Robby Krieger. (Photo by Mark and Colleen Hayward/Getty Images)

Despite the fact that she would tragically not live to see one of her songs reach the top 10, Janis Joplin’s legacy and impact on the soul and blues scene, as well as American music, on the whole, cannot be understated. Often compared to many other artists who died far too young like Kurt Cobain, Jim Morrison, and in the modern era, Amy Winehouse, Joplin was an exceptionally talented artist with so much to say. She laid bare her soul throughout all three of her albums and was beloved for putting so much emotion and power into every single performance.

Beginning and Inspirations

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American blues and jazz vocalist Bessie Smith (1894 – 1937) dances on stage in front of a line of men, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, early twentieth century. (Photo by Anthony Barboza/Getty Images)

Born in 1943 in Port Arthur, Texas, Joplin was said to be an emotional child who always enjoyed attention from others. In her teenage years, as she felt quite different and ‘outcast’ herself due to her weight and acne and the fact that she was quite badly bullied, she befriended some like-minded people and started listening to blues music by artists like Bessie Smith and Lead Belly. Janis was immediately enraptured by this powerful, emotional style of singing and songwriting and knew that it was her calling.

She started performing blues songs at her high school and later went to college, where she also performed her music but never actually finished her studies. In the early 1960s, Janis was really started to embody her blues persona, both physically and mentally. She dressed like the Beat Generation poets and blues artists she loved so much and recorded her first song in 1962. From there, she moved around a lot and recorded several more songs, while also beginning to use drugs like heroin and meth more regularly, as well as drinking whiskey.

Serious Drug Use

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Janis Joplin sings into a microphone on a darkened stage at the Fillmore East, New York, New York, February 11, 1969. (Photo by David Fenton/Getty Images)

At one point in 1965, her friends were so worried about her drug use that they banded together and raised money to send her home to her parents. Their plan worked, for a time. Janis did go home to Port Arthur and stayed off drugs and drink for a while. She even went back to college to study anthropology, but still performed music on the side. She started seeing a counselor called Bernard Giarratano, who would later reveal that Janis didn’t think it was possible to be a successful singer without using drugs.

Giarratano did his best to convince Janis that many professional musicians had enjoyed great careers without resorting to drug use, and she eventually decided to give it another try. In the late 60s, she recorded and released more songs and started to get booked for some pretty big performances with the group Big Brother and the Holding Company. Eventually, Janis decided to go it alone and launched a solo career. She’d done her best to avoid drugs but had eventually slipped back into her bad old habits and, in 1969, it was said that she was using a lot of heroin on a daily basis and, as previously mentioned, it was this drug that would ultimately lead to her untimely demise in October of 1970.

An Unrivalled Legacy

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Jimi Hendrix performs at the Felt Forum on January 28, 1970, in New York City, New York. (Photo by Walter Iooss Jr./Getty Images)

Joplin’s death was a major event. It occurred barely two weeks after the death of another musical legend, Jimi Hendrix, who was actually the same age as Janis (27) when he died too. Music critics and fans paid tribute to Joplin in every way imaginable and mourned her passing. Various books and memoirs were also released in the years to follow, like Buried Alive: The Biography of Janis Joplin by Myra Friedman, the controversial Going Down With Janis by Peggy Caserta, and Love, Janis by Joplin’s little sister Laura, but it was Joplin’s music that really cemented her legacy.

Powerful Voice and Bold Persona

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Singer Stevie Nicks of British-American rock band Fleetwood Mac in a recording studio in New Haven, Connecticut, USA, October 1975. (Photo by Fin Costello /Redferns /Getty Images)

Her voice and persona were unmatched by most other blues singers and she paved the way for many female artists to come. The fact that she had tattoos also helped to make them more acceptable and popular, and her unique style and songwriting skills served as influences to countless other great singers over the years like Stevie Nicks and Florence Welch.

The Rose – The Movie

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A 1979 film called “The Rose” was released based on her life and a gold sculpture was unveiled in her hometown of Port Arthur in the late 80s as a memorial. She was also given her own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame back in 2013 and has, of course, been inducted posthumously into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. These physical homages to Joplin’s greatness will stand the test of time just as strongly as her legendary voice and unforgettable songs.

Kris Kristofferson: A Jack of all Trades

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Musician Kris Kristofferson performs onstage during the 56th GRAMMY Awards at Staples Center on January 26, 2014, in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

Born in 1936, Kristoffer Kristofferson had Swedish heritage on his father’s side, hence his rather unusual name, and has enjoyed an incredible life, playing his part in a whole host of jobs and art forms. As the son of a US Army Air Corps officer, Kristofferson spent his younger years moving around a lot. His father encouraged him to pursue a career in the military, and that’s exactly what he ended up doing. He joined the US Army and reached the rank of captain, learning to fly helicopters and being stationed in West Germany during the 60s. It was there that he started writing his own songs and, when he was finally given leave to go home, he decided that writing songs was exactly what he wanted to do.

He settled down in Nashville, also known as Music City and the home of country music, and did odd jobs to pay his way while he attempted to make it as a singer-songwriter. He even made a tape of his work which ended up with Johnny Cash, but Cash never really got a chance to listen to it as he was sent dozens of tapes every week. Eventually, through the success of his own 1970 debut album and songs like Me and Bobby McGee, Kristofferson got the break he needed.

Aiming High

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American actors (left to right) Kris Kristofferson, as Billy the Kid, Richard Jaeckel (1926 – 1997) as Sheriff Kip McKinney, and James Coburn (1928 – 2002) as Sheriff Pat Garrett, in ‘Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid’ directed by Sam Peckinpah, 1973. (Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images)

As well as writing music, however, he wanted to try his hand at cinema and TV. He started to appear in various movies and shows, including westerns like Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, and proved himself highly competent in the art of acting. He appeared in dozens of productions over the years, from relatively minor films to genuine classics, and every generation of cinema-goers was able to witness Kristofferson’s acting talent in some way or another. Even in the late 1990s and early 2000s, he appeared in blockbusters like Blade and Planet of the Apes and has even lent his voice to video games over the years, proving himself a true jack of all trades and guaranteeing his legacy will last a very long time.

The Kristofferson Joplin affair

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Kris Kristofferson performs ‘Me & Bobby McGee’ live on Hollywood Boulevard during posthumous Star ceremony for the late Janis Joplin on November 4, 2013, in Hollywood, California. AFP PHOTO/Frederic J. BROWN (Photo credit FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images)

Kristofferson, who did, in fact, have a short affair with Joplin, said he recalled listening to her fantastic rendition on the day that she died. In an interview with Rolling Stone magazine, he said that Joplin’s producer had given him one of the records, though that particular one was not the easiest to listen to. With the aim of soaking it inattentively, he went to his publisher’s office where they used to spend time together and played it over and over again. His mission? To internalize it without having to break down.

Saying Goodbye, Writing “Epitaph”

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(L-R-standing) Guest Speakers, Music producer Clive Davis and singer/composer Kris Kristofferson pose with (front) Emcee: Leron Gubler (Hollywood Chamber of Commerce, President/CEO), Joplin’s siblings, Michael and Laura Joplin at the ceremony that honored Janis Joplin with a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. (Photo by Frank Trapper/Corbis via Getty Images)

The afterword of Joplin’s death reached Kristofferson, and after listening to her rendition of the song, Kristofferson was a devastated man and quite heartbroken. To honor her, he invited keyboardist and songwriter Donnie Frits to come over and have a listen to her rendition. After sampling it a couple of times, they decided to write a song together about Janis, one that would come to be famously known as the “Epitaph,” and considered one of Kristofferson’s most beautiful works.

Indeed, Me and Bobby McGee made history, and had a rippling effect on the genre of country music, shaping it to what it is today. It led to the birth of music virtuosos who while growing up, idolized the likes of Janis Joplin and Kris Kristofferson as inspirations in their path towards musical stardom. For many, this is more than just a song. It is a remembrance of their childhood, a reflection of their lives, and an eye-opener on emotional conflictions that people face towards their road to success.