Wikipedia: “‘Me and Bobby McGee” is a song written by American singer-songwriter Kris Kristofferson and originally performed by Roger Miller. Fred Foster shares the writing credit, as Kristofferson intended. (Foster heard someone say what sounded like “Me and Bobby McGee” and called Kristofferson with the bare bones of an idea for a song.)
A posthumously released version by Janis Joplin topped the U.S. singles chart in 1971, making the song the second posthumously released No. 1 single in U.S. chart history after “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” by Otis Redding. Jerry Lee Lewis also released a version reaching number 1 on the country charts in 1971. Billboard ranked Joplin’s version as the No. 11 song for 1971.”
I got the idea for this post when I read an interview with Kris Kristofferson. Kristofferson is an interesting character in that he is not only a very successful songwriter, but he was also a Rhodes scholar and janitor. How many of us can make that exact claim?
Now how does one go from being a Rhodes scholar to a janitor? Well, in Kris’ case, apparently after a lot of drifting around, soul-searching, a stint in the military, and flying helicopters around oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico. (How was this never a Nicholson film?)
The specific place he wound up sweeping floors was at Columbia Studios in Nashville. Legend has it that he “cleaned up after Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde sessions but eventually caught Johnny Cash’s ear through his wife June.” (Imagine being the janitor for these guys with them probably completely ignoring you and then years later being in a movie with Barbra Streisand. The mind boggles. In my own head, I’d still be saying, “I’m the fucking janitor. What am I doing here?)
As to the song “Me and Bobby McGee,” “suggestion for the title was a cordial challenge from producer and Monument Records founder Fred Foster to Kristofferson. The titular character was named for a studio secretary, Barbara “Bobbie” McKee, but Kristofferson had misheard her surname.
In discussing the song, Kristofferson explained that he was trying to convey the despair of the last scene of Federico Fellini’s La Strada in which a broken, war-torn, inebriated Anthony Quinn stares up from the beach at the night’s stars.” (There’s your Rhodes scholar shit right there. Hell, I thought it was just about a couple of drifters.)
Typically when I do a One Song/Three Versions post, I start with the very first one recorded which in this case was Roger Miller. Now I’m a fan of Miller’s but given that I’ve only limited myself to three shots, I think in this instance I’ll go with Kristofferson’s version. This is from his debut album Kristofferson released in 1970 and it brings out all the poignancy. These are roads both literal and metaphorical that Kristofferson traveled well.
Now if you’ve ever heard any version of this tune at all, it is likely Janis Joplin’s version from Pearl, her second and final solo studio album. It was released on January 11, 1971, three months after her death on October 4, 1970.
It was the final album with her direct participation, and the only Joplin album recorded with the Full Tilt Boogie Band, her final touring unit. It peaked at number one on the Billboard 200, holding that spot for nine weeks. It has been certified quadruple platinum by the RIAA.
As to how Joplin knew this not-yet-famous tune, Kristofferson relates that he heard that she sang it at the Nashville Fairgrounds Coliseum in 1969. (If it surprises you that a noted blues singer would do a country tune, recall that Janis was from Texas where you can’t move two feet without hearing it.)
It turns out that Bob Neuwirth, at that time Dylan’s road manager, had taught her the song. That’s why, according to Kristofferson, “there were a couple of lines that were different from the real lyrics.” Kristofferson did not know she had recorded it until after her death. The first time he heard her recording of it was the day after she died. Kris met Joplin and they became friendly. In fact, they became VERY friendly if you catch my drift.
Lastly, I have no fucking idea how Jerry Lee Lewis decided to do this song. But I don’t really care because frankly, it’s a killer. He cares not one whit for the melancholy or the bittersweetness of the tune, throwing his name in as often as he can get away with it. He just “raves on” Jerry Lee style and then asks for a Coca-Cola. Live in London 1983. This may actually be my favorite version. Y’all.
Busted flat in Baton Rouge, headin’ for the train
Feelin’ nearly faded as my jeans
Bobby thumbed a diesel down, just before it rained
Took us all the way to New Orleans
I took my harpoon out of my dirty red bandanna
And was blowing sad while Bobby sang the blues
With them windshield wipers slappin’ time
And Bobby clappin’ hands
We finally sang up every song that driver knew
Freedom’s just another word for nothing’ left to lose
Nothin’ ain’t worth nothin’ but it’s free
Feeling good was easy, Lord, when Bobby sang the blues
Feeling good was good enough for me
Good enough for me and Bobby McGee
Sources: Wikipedia; Written in My Soul, Bill Flanagan, Contemporary Books