“You can’t think of that song without thinking of Janis,” says Kris Kristofferson of Janis Joplin’s raw, bittersweet, posthumous “Me and Bobby McGee.” Kristofferson, who wrote the song, only heard Joplin’s version after her death, when he returned to California after playing the Isle of Wight in 1970. He met the producer of Joplin’s last album, Pearl, in L.A., who told him to come to the studio “to play me her recording of ‘Bobby McGee.’ And it just blew me away. Just blew me away.” Above, you can hear a rare recording, possibly the first take, and possibly one of the early versions Kristofferson heard in the studio.
Many people have assumed Kristofferson wrote the song for Joplin, but that’s not the case: he didn’t know she was recording it at all. It was written, in 1969, about a woman, Barbara “Bobby” McKee, who worked as a secretary in songwriter Fred Foster’s building. Foster gave Kristofferson the title “Me and Bobby McKee,” Kristofferson misheard the last name, assumed it was a man, and wrote the famous lyrics, inspired not by Barbara but by Federico Fellini’s La Strada, in which Anthony Quinn and Giulietta Masina travel together on a motorcycle as a performing duo. (The Louisiana references come in because Kristofferson was working as a helicopter pilot in the Gulf at the time.)
In La Strada, Quinn “got to the point where he couldn’t put up with [Masina] anymore and left her by the side of the road while she was sleeping,” says Kristofferson. Later, when he finds out she has died, he “goes to a bar and gets in a fight. He’s drunk and ends up howling at the stars on the beach.” In a parallel to this mournful scene, Tom Breihan at Stereogum describes how Kristofferson, after hearing Joplin’s version of the song, “spent the rest of the day walking around Los Angeles, crying. He probably wasn’t alone. A lot of people probably cried when they heard Joplin singing ‘Me and Bobby McGee.’” A lot of people still do.
A long list of famous singers has covered the song, originally recorded by Roger Miller—just about anyone you might name in folk and country. But Joplin “made it her own,” Kristofferson says, and it’s no empty cliché. Written as a country song, Joplin doesn’t quite sing it that way, and she “doesn’t really sing it as blues or psychedelic rock either,” writes Breihan. “Instead, she just lets it rip, her phrasing immediate and instinctive,” howling at the stars like Anthony Quinn. “Joplin might’ve never hitchhiked across the country with anyone named Bobby McGee,” but she “did what great interpreters do.” She made the song “about Janis Joplin, because that’s what Janis Joplin made it.”
Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Washington, DC. Follow him @jdmagness