On January 11, 1971, Janis Joplin’s infamous Me and Bobby McGee was released as a single. Now, just in case this isn’t common knowledge, her song is a cover version of Kris Kristofferson and Fred Foster’s original song. It might actually come as a surprise to at least a few people. But what’s more notable – and tragic – about the song is that Joplin’s version came out just four months after she died, which was on October 4, 1970. She was only 27.
Me and Bobby McGee went on to become Joplin’s only number-one single, which was released on her posthumous album Pearl. The album sold over four million copies, so yeah, I think it’s safe to say that this song is kind of a big deal. While Kristofferson does indeed get the credit he deserves for penning the original; it’s Joplin who stole his thunder.
But what is it that makes this song so epic? What’s the real story? Well, you’re about to find out…
This epic journey of an even more epic song started in 1969, with Kris Kristofferson, who at the time was a struggling musician. He had just signed to Monument Records and was about to head to Nashville for another job when he was briefed on an idea for a song by Fred Foster, the record label’s founder.
Kristofferson only half-heartedly wanted to do the song, which was meant to be called Me and Bobby McKee. Kristofferson later recalled that he thought he heard “McGee,” and so he named it accordingly. And this is when it all began…
While Kristofferson did agree to write the song, he later admitted that it took him a very long time to develop all the components of the track.
Little did he know that his very own song would eventually be sung by the likes of Janis Joplin (as well as many others) and go on to be highly respected among country music fans, aficionados, and casual listeners alike. He probably also didn’t anticipate the kind of following his song would emulate.
So, who is this “Bobby”?
What many people don’t know is that Bobby was actually a woman. And that woman was Barbara “Bobby” McKee, a secretary at an office that Fred Foster (from Monument Records) would see on Nashville’s Music Row. And Bobby was clearly the apple of Foster’s eye, if he made all these trips to see her. Foster’s friend can even attest to it… Bobby was the 29-year-old secretary to Boudleaux Bryant, a composer and friend of Foster that worked in the same building.
Bryant would taunt Foster that the only reason he would even come to his office was to see Bobby. In response to all the teasing, Foster promised he would make a song about her. And that’s when he contacted Kristofferson, who had to then look for inspiration to produce the next big hit. Just the name Bobby McGee wasn’t enough to go off of.
Kristofferson was influenced by people and films, not just fellow musicians. “For some reason, I thought of ‘La Strada,’ this Fellini film, and a scene where Anthony Quinn is going around on this motorcycle, and Giulietta Masina is the feeble-minded girl with him, playing the trombone. He got to the point where he couldn’t put up with her anymore and left her by the side of the road while she was sleeping,” he explained.
Later in the film, he sees this woman hanging out the laundry and singing a melody that a girl used to play on the trombone. He asks her, “Where did you hear that song?” And she tells him, “It was this little girl who had showed up in town, and nobody knew where she was from, and later she died.” That night, Quinn’s character goes to a bar and gets in a fight. “He’s drunk and ends up howling at the stars on the beach,” Kristofferson described.
Kristofferson said the feeling from the end of the movie is what he went off in regards to Bobby McGee, as well as what the song structure was going to be. He changed some details to focus on a rich American-style landscape, but the intimate ideas remained the same.
The ambiguity of the name Bobby worked to his (and the record label’s) advantage. What it did was make it easy for both male and female singers, from all over, to cover it as well as for listeners to relate to it. Janis Joplin wasn’t the first musician to cover the song, by the way. Roger Miller, Dolly Parton, Gordon Lightfoot, and Kenny Rogers and The First Edition all did their own versions before Joplin got her hands on it.
Interestingly, Kristofferson didn’t even hear Joplin’s version until after she died in late 1970. He described how it was to learn of her version: “Paul Rothchild, her producer, asked me to stop by his office and listen to this thing she had cut. Afterward, I walked all over L.A., just in tears. I couldn’t listen to the song without really breaking up.”
Kristofferson later said that he had to listen to Joplin’s version until he was sick of it. Why? So that hearing it wouldn’t make him burst into tears all over again. He admits that when he sings it to this day, he always thinks of Joplin.
After her death, tons of other artists recorded the song, including Loretta Lynn, The Grateful Dead, and Olivia Newton-John. Two of Kristofferson’s bandmates from his group Highwaymen, Waylon Jennings and Johnny Cash, would also go on to record the song. When writing it, Kristofferson said he consistently listened to the Mickey Newbury song, Why You Been Gone So Long? Apparently, it was always in the back of his mind as it had a rhythm he liked.
He began singing in an identical meter, and that’s how the birth of the tune for the song Me and Bobby McGee came to be. Now, it was a matter of deciding who would be the right person to sing it. Considering the song’s initial focus was that of a man singing to his woman, the track was meant to be sung by a man. And the man awarded with the role was Roger Miller, in 1969. And Miller got right to it.
Upon its release, the song was an instant hit and is, to date, regarded as one of the top 12 greatest country songs in the US. But, it was Joplin who propelled Me and Bobby McGee to international success.
In a cruel twist of fate, Joplin’s famous and critically acclaimed version was recorded only a few days before her untimely passing in 1970. While gearing up for the release of her second album, Pearl, Joplin died of an apparently accidental heroin overdose.
Ironically, her death led to the album getting worldwide attention, sending it to the top of the charts. Notably, Me and Bobby McGee became the second song ever in the US to hit number one after the singer has died. If you’re wondering what the first was, it was Otis Redding’s Dock of the Bay.
While the tragedy boosted radio plays as well as album sales, Joplin’s performance of the hit was unquestionably beautiful. It touched the hearts of many around the world, especially those that knew her personally.
Soon after her death, her producer Paul Rothschild contacted Fred Foster about her recording of Kristofferson’s single. Funnily enough, and despite Fred Foster admittedly being a huge fan of Joplin, he wasn’t sold on the fact that she could sing anything outside her typical style of rock music.
At the time, Foster had no idea that Joplin had recorded the song for her album Pearl. He was mesmerized by her delicate voice and brilliant performance. Foster felt nothing but sadness at the thought of such an angelic voice, never getting the opportunity to sing again. In Foster’s own words: “Man, what a waste.” Reportedly, Foster was so touched that he was unable to listen to the record without becoming emotional (similar to Kristofferson’s reaction).
Aside from being beautifully sung, the song has profound messages that really resonated with many listeners. Let’s get into the song’s lyrics and the meaning behind them…
“Busted flat in Baton Rouge, waitin’ for a train
And I’s feelin’ near as faded as my jeans
Bobby thumbed a diesel down, just before it rained
It rode us all the way to New Orleans.”
Each verse has its own significance and message, coming together to tell a bittersweet story of two travelers. The first verse introduces us to two exhausted travelers waiting for a train. However, they change their minds and decide to change their means of travel, deciding to hitch-hike to New Orleans instead. And just before a heavy downpour, luck strikes in the form of a truck driver who stops to pick them up.
“I pulled my harpoon out of my dirty red bandanna
I was playin’ soft while Bobby sang the blues, yeah
Windshield wipers slappin’ time, I was holdin’ Bobby’s hand in mine
We sang every song that driver knew.”
It’s on this hitch-hiking journey that the two travelers start to sing the blues, and the truck driver, who just so happens to know all the songs they’re singing, joins in the melody as well. Coincidentally, the characters in the song are similar to Joplin’s personality, who was widely considered to be a free spirit.
Joplin was considered to be a born leader, with extraordinary drive and determination. While many would place her in the “hippie” category, she demanded freedom of thought and never let anything, or anyone stand in her way.
“Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose
Nothin’, don’t mean nothin’ hon’ if it ain’t free, no no
And, feelin’ good was easy, Lord, when he sang the blues
You know, feelin’ good was good enough for me
Good enough for me and my Bobby McGee.”
The verse begins with one of the song’s most iconic lines and one of the greatest lyrics ever written: “Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose.” The entirety of Me and Bobby McGee centers on this theme of freedom. Bobby doesn’t want anything holding her down and needs to be constantly moving, which is exactly what Bobby and the narrator do for the duration of the song. Essentially, this line shows that if you have nothing to lose, you can do whatever you want, and feel free while doing it.
“From the Kentucky coal mine to the California sun
There Bobby shared the secrets of my soul
Through all kinds of weather, through everything we done
Yeah, Bobby baby kept me from the cold.”
The verse involves reminiscing about the days spent on the road traveling with Bobby. The narrator and Bobby had bared their souls to each other and thus, formed an intimate bond. They did this “through all kinds of weather,” referring to both the good and the bad experiences, which only deepened and solidified their bond. The theme of movement continues as the pair travel from Kentucky to California, moving from a “coal mine” to the “sun,” suggesting some kind of enlightenment or illumination for both the narrator and Bobby.
The pair exchange secrets and stories, telling each other about “everything we done.” “Bobby baby kept me from the cold,” implies a sense of warmth and safety. It’s clear that Bobby has been a bright and beautiful presence during their time together.
“One day up near Salinas, Lord, I let him slip away
He’s lookin’ for that home, and I hope he finds it
But, I’d trade all of my tomorrows, for a single yesterday
To be holdin’ Bobby’s body next to mine.”
It’s in this verse that the couple goes their separate ways. “Salinas” is where Bobby heads off, looking for a “home.” The narrator doesn’t hold a grudge against Bobby for leaving, referring back to the earlier line about freedom. Bobby can’t be tied down, not even for a lover. Bobby’s departure is sudden and quick, and we don’t really know how she felt toward the narrator. But the narrator is heartbroken, singing about trading “all of my tomorrows, for a single yesterday.”
“Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose
Nothin’, that’s all that Bobby left me, yeah
But, feelin’ good was easy, Lord, when he sang the blues
Hey, feelin’ good was good enough for me, mm-hmm
Good enough for me and my Bobby McGee.”
The famous line again: “Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose.” This time, it’s the narrator who was left with nothing, rather than Bobby. Earlier on in the song, this line was romantic and idealistic. But in this verse, the narrator isn’t as happy to be left alone since, as they stated: he would give up everything to have Bobby back in his life. The verse goes on with repetitions of earlier lines from the verse…
The narrator talks of how easy it is to feel good being by Bobby’s side. The theme of freedom has oozed throughout the narrative of the song. We’ve seen both the good and bad sides that liberty can create. The song starts to end on a bitter and even tragic note as we realize that perhaps freedom and having “nothin’ left to lose” isn’t as fulfilling as it initially sounded.
The ending of this song is quite sad. Worn out by the road, Bobby decides to separate, with the decision to settle down and create a stable home. The narrator wishes Bobby all the best but insists against settling down. Nonetheless. Bobby picks herself up and continues to soldier on with her life on the road. But it’s made obvious that without Bobby, he can never find happiness again.
Janis Joplin’s life story has an uncanny similarity to the story of this song, as she too spent most of her life on the road. The song really resonated with her, which is why she even took on the song in the first place. Born in 1943 in Port Arthur, Texas, Joplin was said to be an emotional child who always wanted to get the attention of others.
In her teen years, she was somewhat of an outcast due to weight problems and acne. She was bullied as a result. She befriended like-minded people and started listening to blues music by Bessie Smith and Lead Belly. Joplin was enraptured by the powerful, emotional style of music and knew that it was her calling.
She started performing blues songs in high school and later in college. She performed music and never got to finish her studies. She dressed like the famous Beat Generation poets and blues artists that she loved so much. Joplin was an insecure young girl, not yet conscious of the vocal power she would soon realize she had and showcase onstage. She had the voice that would propel her to heights of stardom.
Moreover, Joplin felt that she didn’t mesh well with the rather conservative community she was living among, although she did try to conform. It just didn’t work well for her. As the story goes, Joplin tried to live a normal life and fit in with the rest of society, but it was short-lived.
She found herself drawn to Austin, Texas, where she regularly commuted to play shows with her favorite acoustic guitar. She recorded her first song in 1962. Eventually, Janis was noticed by Chet Helms, the manager of the psychedelic rock band Big Brother and the Holding Company.
Joplin left her studies and never looked back. She decided to move to San Francisco with Helms, where she started singing with his band as the lead singer. They would travel the country as a band. It was only a matter of time before this rocker lifestyle took its toll on the young singer…
In an interview with Dick Cavett, Joplin said that she didn’t cherish the road life as much as people thought she did. She just considered it a way to play music for a living.
For Joplin, settling down wasn’t an option, as it meant putting her thriving music career on hold. Without music, Joplin had nothing else to lose. But, life on the road took a toll, and she indulged in alcohol and drugs. A few months after Joplin’s version of Me and Bobby McGee was released, Jerry Lee Lewis did a cover, but it had a more country feel to it. His cover reached number 40 on the US charts.
One of the reasons it didn’t make much of an impact was the fact that it lacked any resemblance to the original, which was already really popular. Something about it just didn’t resonate with listeners. After all, it’s hard to beat Joplin’s take on it.
Eventually, the legendary Johnny Cash took a swing at covering the hit single. He added it to his live På Österåker album in 1972. Cash was an expert storyteller in his songs, and he told the story of Bobby McGee in a captivating way. If we didn’t know any better, we would think the song was written by himself. He lives for every word of it, as if it came straight from his own heart.
Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson established a close relationship with each other and became best friends. They joined forces with Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings to form The Highwaymen, nonetheless. Cash’s Bobby McGee was a live version (which can be seen easily by searching it on YouTube).
Chet Atkins, Waylon Jennings, Olivia Newton-John, and European talents like Cornelis Vreeswijk and Gianna Nannini covered the song, too. The last two artists rewrote the lyrics into their own languages – Swedish and Italian. It was the first time the song was translated, but it wasn’t the last. The Grateful Dead also did a cover, which enjoyed some success. Theirs was a bit jollier and more upbeat.
Throughout the 80s and 90s, cover songs started to die down, but Me and Bobby McGee made a comeback in the late 90s and early 00s. Artists like LeAnn Rimes, Anne Murray, Jennifer Love Hewitt, and Pink gave their own twists to the classic. Other international singers translated the song into different languages, such as Afrikaans and Hebrew.
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. Here’s an interesting fact: it was the only song by Joplin that became a top 10 hit.
Although she definitely was a well-known and influential singer, she had a “blues” sound in most of her songs.
At the time, blues wasn’t the most popular genre. She was kept out of the top 10 until the release of Me and Bobby McGee. Despite the tragic fact that she never got to see one of her songs reach the top 10, Joplin’s legacy in the soul and blues scene, as well as American music in general, shouldn’t be underestimated.
Joplin is often compared to other artists who died at a young age: Kurt Cobain, Jim Morrison, Amy Winehouse, and Jimi Hendrix. They’re all part of the “27 Club,” which is the age they were when they died. Joplin’s death was a global event. It was barely two weeks after the death of Jimi Hendrix.
Various books and memoirs were released in the years to follow. One was Buried Alive: The Biography of Janis Joplin by Myra Friedman. Others include Going Down with Janis by Peggy Caserta, and Love, Janis by Joplin’s sister Laura. Sadly, the 27 Club has a little too many members…
The 27 Club is the unofficial yet widely understood name for a group of famous musicians, artists, and actors who died at the tragic age of 27. Many wonder what the connection is between the members of the club, besides the age, of course. Maybe it’s the fame that throws them into a downward spiral. Or maybe, like Icarus, they flew too close to the burning sun.
The first known member of the 27 Club was Alexandre Levy, a popular Brazilian pianist, and composer that was considered to be one of the best musicians of his time and was often named in the same breath with classical composers such as Mozart and Beethoven. There is no record regarding the cause of his premature death in 1892 at the age of 27.
The British singer and songwriter, Amy Winehouse, was born on September 14, 1983. In 2004, Amy’s debut album, Frank, was nominated for the Brit Awards in two categories – British Urban Act and British Female Solo Artist. Her single, Back to Black, was #1 on the Billboard chart for three consecutive weeks. The retro-soul singer was also a six-time Grammy award winner for hits such as You Know I’m No Good, Rehab, and others.
Her notable musical feats were often overshadowed by her turbulent personal life and drug abuse. The singer was found dead on July 23rd, 2011, at her London home in the Camden section. It was reported that Amy died of alcohol poisoning after a long-running battle with alcohol addiction. The Amy Winehouse Foundation was launched after her death by her father, Mitch Winehouse, to raise awareness and support organizations that help vulnerable young adults with addiction problems.
Another hugely popular member of the 27 Club is Jimi Hendrix, the American rock singer, songwriter, and guitarist. Hendrix was born on November 27, 1942. He became very famous during his short four-year music career and was described as the greatest instrumentalist in the history of rock music by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Hendrix was very creative with the guitar and was able to bridge R&B, blues, and jazz to rock & roll. Although he had drug and alcohol addiction problems, the exact details of his death are uncertain. He was, however, said to have taken 9 sleeping pills the night before he died, on September 18, 1970. A tragedy for sure, as he would have gone on to do so much more.
Kurt Cobain was born on February 20, 1967. The American singer, songwriter, and musician formed his band Nirvana in 1987, along with fellow bass player Krist Novoselic and drummer Aaron Burckhard who was later replaced with Dave Grohl. The band’s big breakthrough was with its second studio album, Nevermind.
Cobain, who had encounters with narcotics at an early stage of his life, didn’t manage well with success and turned back to drugs. The personal and professional pressures that surrounded his marriage to his musician wife, Courtney Love, did nothing to help him cope with life, and he was said to have struggled with severe health problems – including depression and heroin addiction the last few years before his death. On April 8, 1994, an electrician that came to install a security system in Kurt Cobain’s Seattle home found him dead with a shotgun lying next to his chin. The Seattle police ruled his death as a suicide. In 2014, Cobain was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, alongside his band members Novoselic and Dave Grohl.
Jim Morrison, like the others, doesn’t need much of an introduction. But just because it should be said, he was the lead vocalist of the band, The Doors. He was born on December 8, 1943. Morrison was regarded as an icon of youth counterculture in the 1960s. Throughout his short adult life, he had several serious and casual relationships but maintained a steady relationship with Pamela Courson.
Paul A. Rothchild, the producer that worked closely with The Doors, described Jim Morrison as two distinct and different people; a friendly guy when he was sober, and a maniac when he was drunk. On July 3, 1971, he was found dead in a bathtub at his apartment in Paris. The cause of his death was listed as heart failure, although an autopsy was never performed.
Born on December 22, 1967, Richey Edwards was the rhythm guitarist and main lyricist of Manic Street Preachers, a Welsh punk rock band active since the 1980s. He was famous for his dark, politicized, and intellectual songwriting, as well as the enigmatic character that earned him somewhat of a cult status in the UK.
Edwards disappeared on February 1, 1995. On February 17, 1995, his car was found near the Severn Bridge, a mile-long motorway in South Gloucestershire, England, and it was believed that he committed suicide by jumping off the bridge. Before his disappearance, Edwards suffered from depression most of his adult life. On November 23rd, 2008, the police declared him presumed dead after years of fruitless searching.
Born on August 25, 1965, Mia Zapata was the lead singer of a Seattle punk band, The Gits. She was regarded as a punk force, and the leading female voice in Seattle’s rapidly increasing, male-dominated grunge scene. The group became the locals’ favorite after they released their debut album, Frenching the Bully in 1992.
On July 7, 1993, on her way home late at night after leaving her friend after a few drinks, Mia viciously attacked and didn’t survive it. Grunge celebrities such as Pearl Jam and Nirvana helped in raising thousands of dollars for the investigation of her murder. Her murderer, Jesus Mezquia, was not found and convicted until 2003 when he was sentenced to 36 years in prison. To honor Mia’s memory, her friends founded a self-defense organization, Home Alive.
Rudy Lewis was an American singer and member of the legendary R&B group, The Drifters from 1960 until his death in 1964. The R&B singer who was born on August 23, 1936. He started off as a gospel musician before moving on to become the lead vocalist for The Drifters. According to a source, Billy Vera, Rudy, was addicted to heroin and suffered from binge eating disorder.
His drug problem was not known to the public. On May 20, 1964, he was found dead in his hotel room. However, the actual cause of his death remains unknown, as an autopsy was never performed. Rudy’s family and close friends assumed that he might have died from a combination of a drug overdose, heart attack, and asphyxiation. Rudy Lewis was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988.
American musician, Kristen Pfaff was born on May 26, 1967. She was best known as the bassist for the alternative rock band, Hole. She joined the group in 1993 and passed away in 1994. Before joining the band, Kristen was the bassist and a backing vocalist for a band based in Minneapolis, Janitor Joe. Pfaff played on Live Through This, the only album she recorded with the group.
Like many other popular musicians, Pfaff didn’t cope well with fame and developed a drug abuse problem. On June 16, 1994, Kristen was found dead in her apartment. Her death was attributed to a heroin overdose. After her death, Kristen Pfaff was inducted into the Buffalo Music Hall of Fame, an award her mother received on her behalf.
Basquiat was born in Brooklyn, New York, on 22 December 1960. Before his time in the limelight, he featured his artworks on sweatshirts and postcards, which he put on sale. Basquiat achieved fame in a short period – his artworks were publicly displayed all around the world, including a journey to Ivory Coast for a show, and an exhibition of about 60 paintings at Kestner-Gesellschaft Gallery in Germany.
Basquiat was the youngest artist ever to showcase a work of art at the gallery. The graffiti artist died of a drug overdose on August 12, 1988, at the age of 27. Even after his death, he was remembered in May 2017, when Untitled his 1982 painting of a skull was bought by a Japanese billionaire for $110.5 million during an auction. It became the most highly-priced painting by a Black American artist.
Ron McKernan was popularly known as Pigpen. He was born on the 8th of September 1945. McKernan was an organist, singer, and one of the founding members of the Grateful Dead, the popular San Francisco band in the ‘60s and ’70s, and was very instrumental to the band’s success.
McKernan was known for being an alcoholic. It’s no wonder that his addiction affected his health. So much so that he was forced to retire from music tours in 1972. On March 8, 1873, Ron died of gastrointestinal bleeding caused by complications from excessive intake of alcohol. Days before he died, McKernan recorded a cassette where he sang about no longer living in pain. If that isn’t tragic, I don’t know what is.
Another member of the 27 club is actor Anton Yelchin. He was in the spotlight at the age of 12 when he featured in the fiction series “Taken” in 2002. He later starred in another fiction series, Star Trek, where he played the role of Pavel Chekov. He was born on March 11, 1989, in Saint Petersburg, Russia.
Early in life, after the iron curtain collapsed in 1991, his family immigrated to America. He died in a car accident on June 19, 2016, just outside his house in California. Yelchin came out of his car, parked in his steep driveway. The vehicle then rolled back and trapped him between the pillar and a security fence. The 2016 film Star Trek Beyond was dedicated to him in one of the cinematic world’s most heartbreaking tributes.
Alan Wilson, born on July 4, 1943, was a conservationist and a lover of nature. He was popularly known as the leader and co-founder of Canned Heat, a group that drew a lot of attention during the summer of love. In 1969, he wrote and recorded a song titled Poor Moon, which talked about the potential pollution of the moon.
Wilson died of a drug overdose in Topanga Canyon, California, on September 3, 1970. His autopsy confirmed that he died as a result of accidental acute barbiturate intoxication. After his death, his family supported his dream of conserving nature by purchasing a “grove naming” in his memory through the Save the Redwoods League of California. The funds were used to support the growth of redwoods, research, education, and buying of lands with both new and old redwoods.
Born on June 3, 1947, Dave Alexander was an American musician known as the Bass player and founder of The Stooges, which he formed along with the Asheton brothers and Iggy Pop in 1967. The band, which lived and conducted as an anarchist cooperative, is known to have a powerful influence on the punk-rock and indie-rock scene.
Dave Alexander was only able to be featured in two albums with The Stooges before he was eventually removed from the group in 1970 after he showed up drunk and thus unable to play at Goose Lake International Music Festival in Michigan. Dave died of pulmonary edema on February 10, 1975. His alcohol consumption was suspected of having been responsible for his early death.
Born on April 13, 1976, Jonathan Brandis began his career as a child model. You probably recognize him as he was later featured in several TV commercials before landing himself television and film roles. Brandis started his acting career in 1982 as Kevin Buchanan featuring in the soap opera One Life to Live.
In 1990, he starred as Bill Denbrough in the horror mini-series, It. He was the ladies’ man in NBC’s SeaQuest DSV and The NeverEnding Story II: The Next Chapter. At the time, Brandis was a regular face in teen magazines. He was found dead in the hallway of his apartment building on November 12, 2003.
So what is it about the age of 27? I guess we’ll never know…