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

F10471

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

Kristofferson_Kris_004.jpg

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 Janet 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

Bryant_Boudleaux_003.jpg

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

T1688648_401

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

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.

Joplin_Janis_123.jpg

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

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.

bobbyMcgee-T4-FB4.jpg

Photo by Estate Of Keith Morris/Redferns/Getty Images

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

00t/20/arve/g2328/015

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

m797-312.jpg

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

bobbyMcgee-T5-FB5.jpg

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.

The Song Conclusion – I Let Her Slip Away

ts001530.jpg

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

Joplin_Janis_060_c._Tom_Copi.jpg

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

ts001936.jpg

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

02f/37/arod/15343/P2779030

(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.

Joplin’s Magnum Opus

GAB001_Janis_JOPLIN

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.

The Kristofferson Joplin affair

Was8050620

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”

8150_janisjoplinwalkoffamestarceremony_trapper.jpg

(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.