Me And Bobby McGee (1971)
Kris Kristofferson, one of the writers of “Me And Bobby McGee,” did a Country-Folk version. Waylon Jennings made it almost a shit-kicker Country tune. LeAnn Rimes camped and vamped it up. Even Pink acquitted herself well on a song that almost can’t be ruined.
But there will always be Janis.
And, as she breaks your heart, Janis Joplin rolls all those interpretations together, (even before they were recorded, sensing something in the ether), dips “Bobby McGee” into a bubbling vat of the Blues and creates a musical number for the ages. It’s the version. Everyone else should post a disclaimer on their cover.
Take the silver medal. Cede the gold to the dead woman who holds the torch.
“Me And Bobby McGee” for the ages
At the open, the lyrics serve notice we are taking a specifically American journey.
Busted flat in Baton Rouge, waiting for a train
And I’s feeling nearly as faded as my jeans
Bobby thumbed a diesel down just before it rained
It rode us all the way to New Orleans
Joplin does a respectable job playing the acoustic guitar while her Fill Tilt Boogie Band bides its time, subtly supporting the mistress of modern Blues with a gingery C&W background. Until all hell breaks loose.
Kristofferson’s lyrics couldn’t be more spot on. He tosses off triplets that come deep from his Texa-fornia heart.
Windshield wipers slapping time
I was holding Bobby’s hand in mine
We sang every song that driver knew
But I’d trade all of my tomorrows
For one single yesterday
To be holding Bobby’s body next to mine
Not to mention the immortal philosophically ripping lines, drawing no doubt on his days as a Rhodes Scholar at Merton College, Oxford:
Freedom’s just another word
For nothing left to lose…
The body proper of the Joplin version is effectively over at the 2:30 mark and ends on a melancholy note of loss. But the track has two more minutes to go and that is taken up by a Joplin vocal jam that rivals any work she – or any other singer – ever produced.
She chews on the name Bobby McGee, almost swallows, spits it out and starts over again. The Lord slips in for his turn at the same treatment. In the deep Blues tradition, Janis pleads, begs, beats her chest.
Then the Full Tilt Boogie gang proves their name fits as Janis wails and whoops in the distance. The Grateful Dead are the band’s inspiration.
The lonesome, longing tune crashes through a plate-glass window, clattering to a halt. Just like that. And that’s a classic.
- Fred Foster co-wrote “Me And Bobby McGee” with Kristofferson. Foster is best known for developing the career of Roy Orbison, for whom he acted as producer through nearly his entire career. He has also worked extensively with Dolly Parton, Billy Joe Shaver and Willie Nelson.
- “Bobby McGee” was the second posthumous #1 hit single ever on the charts. The first? “Dock Of The Bay” by Otis Redding.