Few artists embodied the 1960s counter-culture as fully or as fatally as Janis Joplin. A self-described Texan “misfit”, she outrageously lived — and died — the rock’n’roll life, blasting the Monterey Pop festival with her volcanic eruption of a blues voice, dressing in tripped-out granny chic and commissioning the cult cartoonist Robert Crumb to create an album sleeve. A heroin overdose killed her in October 1970, but the following January one of her last recorded songs became a US No 1 single. Joplin’s telling of “Me and Bobby McGee” would be her epitaph; its vocal shot through with all her “hurts and confusions” yet also her immense vitality and rowdy romantic vigour.
Joplin’s version might be definitive — it’s easy to imagine her travelling every mile of the lovers’ journey from Kentucky to California — but she didn’t write “Me and Bobby McGee”, nor was hers the earliest cover. Kris Kristofferson, an old flame, was the author, although he didn’t write it for her either, and his song proved an instant country classic. A former army captain and Rhodes Scholar, Kristofferson would become a successful actor and singer, but in the late 1960s he was jobbing as a studio gopher in Nashville as he tried to make it as a songwriter. “Me and Bobby McGee” was his breakthrough, but it wasn’t entirely his idea.
Fred Foster, the boss of Monument Records, challenged Kristofferson to write a song with the title “Me and Bobby McKee”, about a pair of drifters, with the twist being that Bobby was a girl. Bobby McKee was a secretary in Foster’s building. Kristofferson misheard her name as “McGee”, but took on the assignment. He had been hanging out with a fellow Texan musician, Mickey Newbury, and it was the metre of Newbury’s “Why You Been Gone So Long?” that guided Kristofferson’s melody. Kristofferson’s most quotable line — “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose” — was inspired, he later said, by a scene in Fellini’s film La Strada, where Anthony Quinn leaves Giulietta Masina, and comes to regret it.
“Me and Bobby McGee” was picked up by the “King of the Road” singer Roger Miller. His original recording, with boxy drumming and an almost mariachi flourish at the end, became a hit in 1969. Miller, too, was from Texas. “Me and Bobby McGee” had many of the characteristics of the musical style attributed to that state called “outlaw country”: rootsy yet wordy, gritty and reflective, unafraid to cross the borders into folk and blues. The song’s subsequent recording history is a Who’s Who of that renegade genre, with versions from Charlie McCoy to Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings to Chet Atkins, as well as delightful performances by female stars such as Dottie West and Loretta Lynn. The hippies’ favourite jam band, the Grateful Dead, turned it into a platform for Jerry Garcia’s rueful guitar soloing on the 1971 live album known as Skull & Roses.
Kristofferson’s own elegiac rendition was released on his debut album of April 1970. But two other versions of that era were soon better known: Gordon Lightfoot’s solemn acoustic take and the up-tempo country pop of Kenny Rogers & the First Edition. More recently, Melissa Etheridge, LeAnn Rimes and Pink are among those influenced by Joplin’s con belto approach (without ever really coming close). In 2002, the actress and singer Jennifer Love Hewitt bizarrely did it with bongos. There have also been covers in Swedish, German and Italian — the latter Gianna Nannini’s funky little noodle in 1979.
Kristofferson heard Joplin’s account the night after her death. It broke him up. Yet interest in his work soared after her posthumous No 1. Kristofferson surely kept such success in perspective. “Me and Bobby McGee” is about loving and losing. “Feelin’ good was good enough for me — and Janis,” he ad-libbed in a concert in 2010. I reckon he meant it.
For more podcasts and song clips in the series go to www.ft.com/podcasts