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

Embedded into cultures worldwide for centuries, music touches the soul of every person, and certain songs are associated with some of the greatest moments of people’s lives. One example is Janis Joplin’s epic version of “Me and Bobby McGee”, which is sure to induce a feeling of nostalgia in those who remember its release in 1971, shortly after her death. A bittersweet fusion of the art of storytelling and the great classic tempos of its era, this timeless classic has an intriguing history, which we explore in depth.

How It All Began

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

This epic journey starts with Kris Kristofferson, a struggling musician signed to Monument Records who was about to go to Nashville for another job when he was briefed on a song idea by Fred Foster, the record label’s founder. The song was to be “Me and Bobby McKee”, though Kristofferson recalls thinking he heard “McGee”, so named it accordingly.

Half-heartedly, Kristofferson agreed to write the song, though he later admitted that it took him a long time to develop all the facets of the classic. Little did he know that it would be sung by the likes of Janet Joplin and highly revered among country music aficionados and casual listeners alike.

The Mystery of “Bobby”

Initially, it was thought that Kristofferson 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. However, at that time, no one realized that “Bobby” was a woman.

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

This came to light as a result of an article published by Songwriter Magazine that revealed the name “McGee” was intended to be “McKee” – and the claims were later confirmed to be true.

So, why was this important?

Barbara (known as “Bobby”) McKee was the 29-year-old secretary to Boudleaux Bryant, a composer and a friend of Foster that worked in the same building. Occasionally, Bryant would taunt Foster that the only reason he came to his office was to see Bobby. In response to the teases, Foster promised to produce a song about her, which is when he contacted Kristofferson, who began looking for inspiration to produce the next big hit.

The Foundation of a Classic

When writing the song, Kristofferson said he persistently heard the Mickey Newbury song “Why You Been Gone So Long?” in the back of his mind – as it had a rhythm he liked, he began singing in an identical meter. With that came the birth of the tune for the song “Me and Bobby McGee”.

The Foundation of a Classic

Mickey Newbury (Photo by Tom Hill/WireImage)

Now, it was a matter of deciding who would be best to sing it.

The First Release

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

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

Upon its release, it was an instant hit and is, to date, regarded as one of the 12 greatest country songs in the US. However, it was Janis Joplin’s 1970 version of this song that propelled “Me and Bobby McGee” to international success – although this was shrouded in sadness.

Twist of Fate

In a cruel twist of fate, Janis Joplin’s famous and critically acclaimed version of the song was recorded a few days before her unfortunate passing in 1970. While gearing up for the release of her second album “Pearl”, Joplin died from a heroin overdose.

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

Ironically, her inadvertent death led to the album receiving worldwide attention, propelling it to the top position in the charts. Notably, it became the second song ever in the US to peak at number one after the singer had died, the first being Otis Redding’s “Dock of the Bay“.

While the tragedy undoubtedly boosted radio plays and sales, Joplin’s performance in the song was unquestionably beautiful, and it touched the hearts of many around the world, especially those that knew her personally.

Touched by an Angel

Soon after Joplin’s death, her producer Paul Rothschild contacted Fred Foster regarding her recording of “Me and Bobby McGee”. Although Fred Foster admitted to being a big fan of Joplin, he wasn’t convinced she could sing anything outside her usual genre of rock music. He had no idea at the time that Joplin had recorded the song before she died for her second album “Pearl”. Mesmerized by her delicate voice and stunned by the brilliant performance when he heard it, Foster could feel nothing but sadness at the thought of such an angelic voice never having the opportunity to sing again. In his own words: “Man, what a waste.”

Touched by an Angel

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

It is reported that Foster was so touched that he was unable to listen to the record without becoming emotional. Aside from being beautifully sung, the song has profound messages that resonate with many listeners.

The Bittersweet Story

The story of “Me and Bobby McGee” takes inspiration from the classic 1954 film “La Strada” by Federico Fellini, successfully piecing in the facets of the classic American road story. It’s a bittersweet telling of nostalgia, coupled with the longing of the American terrain, that deals with themes such as the loss of lovers, the loss of friends, and the loss of youthful dreams.

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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)

Each verse has its own significance and message, and they combine to tell a bittersweet story of two travelers.

Verse One: Headin’ for the Trains

The first verse discusses two travelers being 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.

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

Just before a heavy downpour while they are on their way, luck strikes in the form of a truck driver who picks them up.

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 resemblance to Joplin’s personality, who was occasionally observed as a free spirit.

Verse Two: Bobby Shared the Secrets of My Soul

The second verse consists of the narrator reminiscing on the days spent on the road traveling with Bobby, moving from Tennessee to California. During this time, the narrator and Bobby bore their souls to each other and in turn, formed an intimate bond.

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Photo by Getty Images/Getty Images

Moreover, they did this “through all kinds of weather’; referring to both the good as well as bad experiences, which deepened and solidified the bond further.

Verse 3: Freedom’s Just Another Word

The third verse begins 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.

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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)

Bobby doesn’t want anything tying her down and needs to be constantly moving, and this is exactly what Bobby and the narrator 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, 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 responsibilities.

Verse 4: Bobby Baby Kept Me from the Cold

The theme of movement continues in the fourth verse as the pair travel from Kentucky 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.

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

Verse 5: I Let Him Slip Away

It’s in the fifth verse that the couple goes their separate ways. To be exact, “Salinas” is where Bobby heads off in search of a “home”. The narrator bears no grudge against Bobby for her departure, referring back to the earlier line about freedom. We are reminded, once again, that Bobby cannot be tied down, not even for a lover.

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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)

Bobby’s departure is sudden and swift, and it’s hard to know how she really felt toward the narrator. The narrator, on the other hand, is heartbroken to have lost Bobby, singing about trading “all of my tomorrows, for a single yesterday” and thus implying that living one more day with Bobby is worth sacrificing the future. It’s a powerfully romantic line and one of the best examples of the narrator’s love for Bobby.

Verse 6: Feelin’ Good was Good Enough for Me

The sixth verse refers to that famous line: “Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose”. This time, however, 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 completely free by having no obligations and responsibilities. In this verse, however, we feel that the narrator isn’t happy at all to be left alone since, as they stated in the fifth verse, they’d give up everything to have Bobby back in their life.

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

The verse continues with repetitions of earlier lines in which the narrator talks of how easy it is 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 initially sounds.

The Sad Conclusion

The ending of this song is, unfortunately, sad. Perhaps worn out by the road, Bobby decides to separate from the narrator, with the aspiration of settling down and having a stable home. The narrator proceeds to wish Bobby all the best and insists against settling down.

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

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 again. As stated earlier, Janis Joplin’s life story has an uncanny semblance to the story of the song, as she spent most of her life on the road.

Janis Joplin’s Real-Life Road Story

Joplin’s early life consisted of growing up in the confines of Port Arthur in Texas. At that time, she was insecure, not yet conscious of the vocal power she would soon possess onstage, propelling her to heights of stardom.

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Photo by Tom Copi/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Moreover, she felt that she didn’t integrate well with the rest of the conservative community she lived with, although she did attempt to conform to society.

Trying to Play It Safe

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

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

Eventually, she caught the eye of Chet Helms, the manager of a psychedelic rock band called Big Brother and the Holding Company.

For the second time, Joplin abandoned her studies, this time not looking back. She moved to San Francisco with Helms, where she began singing with the band as the lead singer, traveling the country while performing.

It was only a matter of time before this lifestyle took its toll on the young singer.

Paying for Her Love

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.

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

For Joplin, settling down was not an option for her, as it meant putting her thriving music career on hold (again, similar to the theme in “Me and Bobby McGee” of leaving the road and settling down). Without music, Joplin felt like she had nothing else to lose. However, life on the road took its toll, and she was known to sometimes excessively indulge in alcohol and drugs.

In 1970, she overdosed on heroin and died.

Although this tragedy helped propel her version of “Me and Bobby McGee” to international success, it is worth noting that there are many other significant versions of the song.

Early Covers

Astonishingly, the original Roger Miller version of “Me and Bobby McGee” 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”.

There are, in addition, notable versions of the song that were released after Joplin’s hit.

Additional Covers

Several months after the release of Joplin’s version of the song, Jerry Lee Lewis produced a cover, with a more country-like style and theme coming into play. When it was released, it only reached number 40 in the US charts. Perhaps one of the reasons why it did not have a huge impact was the fact that it lacked resemblance to the original, which was already immensely popular. Rock band The Grateful Dead also enjoyed some limited success with their slightly jauntier, upbeat version of the classic song.

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

Even the legendary Johnny Cash, best known for songs such as “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 such as 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. This was the first time the song had been translated, but it wasn’t to be the last.

Modern Covers and Translations

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

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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)

Various other international singers have translated the song into additional languages, such as Afrikaans and Hebrew, truly helping to cement “Me and Bobby McGee” as a global classic. The sheer volume of covers pays testament to what a genuinely timeless and beloved song it really is – although it is worth noting that it was the biggest hit of Joplin’s music career.

Joplin’s Magnum Opus

Here’s an intriguing fact: this was the only song by Janis Joplin that became a top 10 hit.

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

Though she was a well-known and influential singer, Joplin had a “blues” sound in the majority of her songs, which at the time was not the most popular genre of music. Consequently, this kept her out of the top 10 until the release of her version of “Me and Bobby McGee”. Even so, Joplin undeniably gained worldwide popularity and left a lasting legacy despite her early tragic demise.

Tragic Talent

Despite the tragic fact that she would 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 in general, should not be underestimated. Often compared with many other artists who died at a young age, such as Kurt Cobain, Jim Morrison, and in the modern era, Amy Winehouse, Joplin was an exceptionally talented artist.

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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)

She laid bare her soul throughout all three of her albums and was renowned for the emotion she put into every performance. This emotion was inspired by her early life in southern America.

Early Inspirations

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, she was regarded as somewhat of an outcast due to weight problems and acne and was bullied as a result. She befriended some like-minded people and started listening to blues music by artists such as Bessie Smith and Lead Belly. Joplin was immediately enraptured by this powerful, emotional style of singing and songwriting and knew that it was her calling.

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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)

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. 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 such as heroin and meth more regularly, as well as drinking whiskey heavily. It was only a matter of time before this lifestyle got out of control.

Intervention

By 1965, Joplin’s friends were so worried about her drug use that they raised money between themselves to send her home to her parents. Their plan worked, for a short time – Joplin 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 she didn’t think it was possible to be a successful singer without using drugs.

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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)

Giarratano did his best to convince Joplin that many successful professional musicians had enjoyed great careers without resorting to drug use, and she eventually decided to try again. In the late 1960s, she recorded and released more songs and started to get booked for fairly big performances with the group Big Brother and the Holding Company. Eventually, Joplin decided to go it alone and launched a solo career. Although she had some success in avoiding drugs and alcohol, she eventually slipped back into her bad old habits; in 1969, it was said that she was using a lot of heroin on a daily basis. It was this drug that would ultimately lead to her untimely demise in October 1970.

An Unrivalled Legacy

Joplin’s death was a major global event. It occurred barely two weeks after the death of another musical legend, Jimi Hendrix, who was actually the same age as Joplin (27).

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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)

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, such as 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.

Paving the Way

Joplin’s voice and persona were unmatched by most other blues singers, and she paved the way for many female artists to come. Her unique style and songwriting skills served as influences to countless other great singers over the years, such as Stevie Nicks and Florence Welch.

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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)

Additionally, her tattoos were popular and helped to ease the taboo and stigma surrounding women having them in the 1960s.

As a result of her far-reaching talent and influence, she holds various accolades in the US.

Homage to the Rose

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 1980s 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 much as her legendary voice and unforgettable songs.

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But what about the man behind the words of the song “Me and Bobby McGee”?

Kristofferson: A Jack of all Trades

Born in 1936 with Swedish heritage on his father’s side, Kristoffer Kristofferson 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, which he did – he joined the US Army and reached the rank of captain, learning to fly helicopters and being stationed in West Germany during the 1960s. It was there that he started writing his own songs and, when finally given leave to go home, he decided to do so full time.

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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)

Kristofferson 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 and sent it to Johnny Cash, who unfortunately didn’t listen to as it was one of many received each week. Eventually, through the success of his own 1970 debut album and songs such as “Me and Bobby McGee”, Kristofferson got the break he needed.

This, however, was not enough, and Kristofferson’s ambition grew further.

Aiming High

As well as writing music, Kristofferson wanted to try his hand at cinema and TV. He started to appear in various movies and shows, including Westerns such as “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, including blockbusters such as “Blade” and “Planet of the Apes”. He has even lent his voice to video games in the past, proving himself a true jack of all trades and guaranteeing that his legacy will last a very long time.

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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)

It was not always just Kristofferson’s professional life that was of interest – his personal affairs were also publicized.

The Kristofferson-Joplin Affair

Kristofferson had a short affair with Joplin and said he recalled listening to her fantastic rendition of his song 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 it was not the easiest to listen to.

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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)

With the aim of listening to it attentively, he went to his publisher’s office, where he used to spend time with Joplin, and played it repeatedly. His mission? To internalize it so he could listen to it without becoming too emotional. But this was not enough – he wanted to record his love for Joplin in a timeless tribute.

Saying Goodbye

After Joplin’s death, Kristofferson was devastated. To honor her, he invited keyboardist and songwriter Donnie Frits to come over and listen to her version of “Me and Bobby McGee”.

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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)

After sampling it a couple of times, they decided to write a song together about Joplin, one that would come to be famously known as the “Epitaph” and considered one of Kristofferson’s most beautiful works.

A Lasting Legacy

Indeed, “Me and Bobby McGee” made history and had a rippling effect on the genre of country music, shaping it into 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 on their journey toward musical stardom.

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(Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

For many, this is more than just a song. It is a remembrance of their childhood, a reflection of their lives, and an insight into their deepest emotions.