Me and Bobby McGee: Roger Miller; Kris Kristofferson; Janis Joplin

Hello there! Our song this week is Me and Bobby McGee. It is one of the most iconic country-rock songs.  Although the song was co-written by Kris Kristofferson and Fred Foster, the first recorded version was by Roger Miller.

Because of that, we will begin by discussing Roger Miller’s version.  Then, we will review the song’s origin story as part of our discussion of Kris Kristofferson’s version.  Finally, we’ll wrap up with the well-known version by Janis Joplin.

Roger Miller, Me and Bobby McGee:

Roger Miller was a singer-songwriter who carved out a successful career in the 60s. He was born in 1936 in Oklahoma. When his family was unable to eke out a living during the Depression, his parents sent Roger and his brothers to live with their aunt and uncle.  Roger described his childhood circumstances as “dirt-poor.”

After serving a stint in the Army, Miller headed to Nashville to seek his fortune in country music. He failed his first audition, but after he took a job at a Nashville hotel, he became known as the “singing bellhop.” As a result, he was hired as a fiddle player by Minnie Pearl.

Below is a photo of Roger Miller performing.

Embed from Getty Images

Miller’s initial success was as a songwriter. Various of his songs became hits for artists such as Ray Price and Ernest Tubb. Miller was unusual in that he was constantly coming up with ideas for songs. However, he had a terrible time finishing the tunes; so his music publishing company was frequently putting pressure on Miller to complete the songs he had begun.

Eventually Miller became so frustrated with songwriting that he moved to the West Coast, made a few appearances on late-night talk shows, and attempted to become an actor. However, in 1964 he recorded two songs for Smash Records, Dang Me and Chug-a-lug.

Both of these songs became country hits, peaking at #1 and #3 respectively.  They were also big cross-over songs, both making the top 10 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts. Roger Miller’s career was off to a great start. He was particularly excited about this success, since he had dashed off Dang Me in just four minutes.

Roger Miller’s hit songs were rather diverse. Some of those were essentially “novelty” songs, often featuring
whimsical lyrics, coupled with scat singing or vocalese riffs filled with nonsense syllables.
However, other songs that he wrote were rather touching ballads.

Throughout his career, Roger Miller produced country songs that also became cross-over hits. His signature tune King of the Road reached #1 on both the Billboard Country and Adult Contemporary charts, and also made it to #4 on the Billboard Hot 100 pop list.

Roger Miller’s vocals are very appealing, and they clearly show off his Oklahoma origins. I would categorize his earliest songs, such as Dang Me and Do-Wacka-Do, as definitely in the “redneck” category. However, his vocals became more refined as he branched out to reach a more diverse audience.

In the late 60s Roger Miller began covering songs from other writers. Thus, in 1969 he was the first to record Kris Kristofferson’s Me and Bobby McGee.

Kristofferson’s lyrics describe a singer who reminisces about his old girlfriend Bobby McGee. They traveled across the country together, and although they had no money, he retains wistful memories of the good times they shared.

Busted flat in Baton Rouge, headin’ for the trains,
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 bandana
And was blowin’ 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 nothin’ left to lose,
And nothin’ ain’t worth nothin’ but it’s free,
Feelin’ good was easy, Lord, when Bobby sang the blues,
And buddy, that was good enough for me,
Good enough for me and my Bobby McGee.

Here is Roger Miller in a live performance of Me and Bobby McGee. His version of the song reached #12 on the Country charts.

I find this a very appealing version of the song. It features Miller’s smooth, apparently effortless vocal style, and the wry grin that he sported whenever he performed.  By the way, the great Johnny Cash is reputed to have said that Roger Miller’s voice was the closest to his own that Cash had encountered in country music.

Roger Miller also had considerable success providing voices for animated features. In 1973 he appeared as the rooster Allan-A-Dale in the Disney animated film Robin Hood. Miller also wrote the three songs that he performed in that movie.

Roger Miller won a number of awards for his work. His 11 Grammy Awards were the most by a solo performer until he was overtaken by Michael Jackson – by the way, this would be a great trivia question; I never realized that Miller won so many Grammys.

Roger Miller stopped writing songs in 1978. However, in 1985 he wrote the score for a Broadway musical called Big River, a musical adaptation of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. Big River was a big success, and Miller won 7 Tony Awards for his only Broadway musical.

Roger Miller died in 1992 from lung and throat cancer. A lifelong cigarette smoker, he passed away at age 56.

Kris Kristofferson, Me and Bobby McGee:

Kris Kristofferson is a singer-songwriter and actor who has had a fascinating career.

Born in 1936 into a military family, Kristofferson moved around quite a lot as a youth. He attended Pomona College, where he was both an outstanding student and an accomplished athlete.

As a result, he won a Rhodes Scholarship to attend Oxford University. At Oxford he was a member of Merton College, which was also the Oxford college I attended as a graduate student.

Below is a photo of Kris Kristofferson, early in his career.

Embed from Getty Images

At Oxford, Kristofferson was awarded a “Blue” (i.e., a varsity letter) in boxing, and also played rugby. He began performing music, with the idea that this might provide him with financial support while he pursued his goal of becoming a novelist.

Under pressure from his family, Kris joined the Army. He was stationed in Germany, where he became a helicopter pilot. While in Germany, he joined a band and continued to perform.

At the end of his tour of duty, Kristofferson turned down an appointment teaching English lit at West Point, in favor of a songwriting career. At this point, apparently his family disowned him.

Kris moved to Nashville, where he took up odd jobs while he wrote and submitted country songs. At one point, he worked as a helicopter pilot for a company in New Orleans. He would spend a week or two flying copters on oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico, and writing country songs in his spare time.

Kristofferson would then return to Nashville and pitch the songs that he had written. Apparently some of Kristofferson’s best-known songs, such as Me and Bobby McGee and Help Me Make It Through The Night, were written while he was sitting on an oil rig in south Louisiana.

As I mentioned earlier, the song Me and Bobby McGee has a fascinating history. Apparently Fred Foster, a record producer and head of Monument Records, told Kris about a great idea he had for a song. Some friends had inquired whether Foster was having a romantic relationship with a woman named Bobby McKee, and Foster replied, “Me and Bobby McKee? Never!”

Foster reportedly told Kristofferson that “Me and Bobby McKee” would be a great song title. The ‘hook’ was that “Bobby McKee” was a woman, and Foster envisioned that “they’ll be traveling around or something.”

Kristofferson’s response was that first, the idea sounded pretty terrible; and second, he could think up his own song concepts. So he shelved the idea for some time. However, once Kris came up with the line “Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose, nothin’ ain’t worth nothin’, but it’s free,” he sat down and finished off the remainder of the song; however, he changed the woman’s last name.

For his contribution to the concept, Fred Foster was given co-writer credit for Me and Bobby McGee.

Here is Kris Kristofferson in a live performance of Me and Bobby McGee. The song appeared on his 1970 album Kristofferson.

Isn’t this terrific? This took place at a tribute to musician Dorsey Burnette, a rockabilly singer who died of a heart attack at age 46. Burnette had failed to achieve commercial success, but was widely admired in the music industry. Kris Kristofferson was one of the musicians who performed at this benefit concert that was organized by Delaney Bramlett.

Kristofferson is in fine form here. The song is delivered as a country anthem, just as he originally wrote it. Note that he works Dorsey Burnette’s name into the song’s lyrics at one point.

Below is a more recent photo of Kris Kristofferson, performing at Willie Nelson’s 4th of July picnic.

Embed from Getty Images

Kris Kristofferson’s songwriting career was exceptionally successful. In fact, in 1970 his song For the Good Times (performed by Ray Price) was named “song of the year” by the Academy of Country Music. That same year, Sunday Morning Coming Down (performed by Johnny Cash) won the same award from the Country Music Association.

That was the first and only time that a songwriter received “song of the year” awards in the same year from the two major country music associations, but for different songs.

Kristofferson’s solo recording career was quite interesting. He began recording in 1970, and after his first album had disappointing sales, his second album was extremely successful.

Kristofferson followed this up with mixed results. Some of his albums became best-sellers, while others were unsuccessful. In 1985, Kristofferson teamed up with country music legends Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Johnny Cash to form the country supergroup The Highwaymen. The Highwaymen were a great success, and the group continued to record and tour for the next decade.

While a number of musicians dabble in acting and score cameo roles in the occasional movie, Kris Kristofferson is one of the few singer-songwriters who have achieved major success as an actor.

Kris has appeared in scores of films covering a vast range of topics. He won a Golden Globe for Best Actor for his role in the remake of A Star is Born. He also had roles in the vampire trilogy Blade with Wesley Snipes, and in the remake of Planet of the Apes. In addition, Kristofferson has appeared in a number of western movies, including several directed by Sam Peckinpah, and also Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate.

Kris Kristofferson has received a number of awards for his singing and songwriting. In 1985 he was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. In 2004 he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, and in 2006 he received the Johnny Mercer Award from the Songwriters Hall of Fame.

Kris Kristofferson is a pretty amazing, multi-talented artist. Over the past 50 years he has produced award-winning work in songwriting, country music performance and acting. So, now that he has turned 80, kudos to Mr. Kristofferson!

Janis Joplin, Me and Bobby McGee:

Janis Joplin came out of Texas in the early 60s, trying to make the big time as a blues singer. Like several other young talents (e.g., Otis Redding and Jimi Hendrix), Janis became an overnight sensation following her performance with the band Big Brother and the Holding Company at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival.

In earlier blog posts we have considered several Janis Joplin songs.  We discussed her cover of the song Piece of My Heart when she was a member of  Big Brother and the Holding Company.  We also reviewed her cover of Maybe; and in addition the song Cry Baby.

One secret of Janis’ appeal was that she held absolutely nothing back. Her singing was raw and brutal. She wailed, screamed and pleaded until her voice gave out.

The photo below shows Janis Joplin performing on the Dick Cavett Show. This took place in August, 1970, just two months before her death.

Embed from Getty Images

Part of the reason why she was so direct and heartfelt was that even before she was famous, Janis was having serious issues with both alcohol and drugs, and in particular heroin. I can’t remember seeing an interview with Janis when she wasn’t stoned out of her gourd, slurring her words, often barely able to construct a sentence. But the booze and meds removed any inhibitions in her performances.

Janis Joplin’s most famous album with Big Brother and the Holding Company was the 1968 release Cheap Thrills. The album contained many of Janis’ best-known songs, such as Piece of My Heart, Ball and Chain and Summertime.

Less than a year after the release of Cheap Thrills, Janis split from Big Brother. Janis subsequently went through a couple of other backing groups, the Kozmic Blues Band and Full Tilt Boogie, but I have always thought that Janis was at her best with Big Brother and the Holding Company.

Here is the audio of Janis Joplin’s recording of Me and Bobby McGee.

This is a clip from the film Woodstock, the documentary of the August 1969 Woodstock Festival. With Janis singing in the background, the images show the construction of stages and lots for Woodstock, of fans traveling to the festival, then some brief shots of performers.

Thus we see brief images of Carlos Santana, Joe Cocker, Country Joe McDonald and Jimi Hendrix. Right at the very end, we see a few seconds of Janis herself performing at Woodstock.

Janis Joplin’s version of Me and Bobby McGee is most impressive. She converts it from a straight country song to a blues ballad.  The song starts out slowly and softly, just Janis and acoustic guitar, then adds in electric guitar and organ. Gradually, both the volume and pace of the song increase.

In the last two minutes of the song, Janis sings “La da da da, da da da da … hey, hey, hey, Bobby McGee,” gradually building up to a crescendo. In the final minute, we get a rocking series of solos from guitar and organ, culminating in one final wail from Janis, “hey, hey, hey, Bobby McGee.”

Now, here is Janis Joplin “performing” Me and Bobby McGee live in Austin, TX on July 10, 1970.

This is live video, but you need to be careful here. While the audio is from a live performance of Me and Bobby McGee by Janis, note that this is combined with video of her performing a different song, Tell Mama.

You will see fairly quickly that the audio and video do not synch up. I suspect that the audio and video were from different performances.

I include this because the tape is quite rare and valuable. For reasons that we will discuss, I had not expected to find a live performance of this song by Janis; however, apparently I was wrong.

Here, Janis is performing at the Austin, TX restaurant and concert hall run by Kenneth Threadgill.  She had returned from a tour as part of a birthday tribute to Mr. Threadgill. When she was a student, Janis Joplin started out singing at Threadgill’s establishment, and had first garnered an enthusiastic following there.

I believe that Janis may be accompanying herself on guitar here.  In any case, she arrived without her band, and was singing a few songs in gratitude for Threadgill’s support at the very beginning of her career.

Cover of the 1970 Janis Joplin album, Pearl.

Cover of the 1970 Janis Joplin album, Pearl.

The song Me and Bobby McGee was one of the cuts on Janis’ album Pearl.  The cover from that album is shown at left.  She began recording the album in LA in September, 1970 with her band, Full Tilt Boogie.

During the recording sessions, Janis stayed at the Landmark Hotel in Hollywood. Unfortunately, Joplin’s associates, who were making a concerted effort to keep her off drugs, seem not to have realized that the Landmark was a major hangout for drug dealers, and particularly for heroin dealers.

On Oct. 4, 1970, Janis Joplin was found dead in her hotel room at the Landmark. The cause of death was a heroin overdose, compounded by alcohol.

Not only was Janis 27 years old when she died, but she died just sixteen days after Jimi Hendrix died (also at age 27) from complications from drug use.

The deaths of Janis and Jimi were gigantic shocks to all rock music fans. They were among rock music’s most dynamic and creative figures. Both of them had been thrust into super-stardom following their iconic appearances at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, and both had been headliners at the Woodstock Festival. Now both had died nearly simultaneously.

The vulnerable, doomed Janis presented rock music fans with an image of someone who bared it all, whose searing songs gave people a glimpse into her soul.

Janis’ cover of Me and Bobby McGee went to #1 on the Billboard pop charts. It was her only top-10 song, and for most people it would be considered Janis Joplin’s “signature song.”  It is interesting that although Janis and Kris Kristofferson were good friends, Kris was unaware that Janis was recording his tune.

Me and Bobby McGee was only the second posthumously released song ever to reach the #1 level; the only previous song to reach that peak was Otis Redding’s Dock of the Bay. The album Pearl also reached #1 on the Billboard charts.

Source Material:

Wikipedia, Me and Bobby McGee
Wikipedia, Roger Miller
Wikipedia, Kris Kristofferson
Wikipedia, Janis Joplin

About Tim Londergan

Tim Londergan is professor emeritus of theoretical physics at Indiana University-Bloomington. He studies the properties of the quarks and gluons that form the internal structure of protons and neutrons. He also writes a blog "Tim's Cover Story" that compares covers of important songs in rock music history. He and his wife share their college-town life with two delightful cats, Lewis and Clark. His hobbies include tennis and ornithology, and he is a life-long fan of the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team.
This entry was posted in Country music, Pop Music, Rock and roll and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s