This was written by Kris Kristofferson, who has written hundreds of songs for a wide variety of artists. Kristofferson would become a successful solo artist and appear in several movies, but it was Janis Joplin's hit cover of this song that brought his career to the next level. "'Bobby McGee' was the song that made the difference for me," he told Performing Songwriter in 2015. "Every time I sing it, I still think of Janis."
The founder of Kristofferson's record label, Fred Foster, rang him just as the struggling musician was about to leave Nashville for his helicopter pilot sideline job. He said that he had a song title for the songwriter - "Me And Bobby McKee." Kristofferson recalled in Mojo magazine March 2008 that his label boss suggested: "'You could make this thing about them traveling around, the hook is that he turns out to be a she.'"
Kristofferson was not sure at first. "I hid from Fred for a while but I was trying to write that song all the time I was flying around Baton Rouge and New Orleans. I had the rhythm of a Mickey Newbury song going in the back of my mind, 'Why You Been Gone So Long,' and I developed this story of these guys who went around the country kind of like Anthony Quinn and Giuletta Masina in (Fellini's) La Strada. At one point, like he did, he drove off and left her there. That was 'Somewhere near Salinas, I let her slip away.' Later in the film he (Quinn) hears a woman hanging out her clothes, singing the melody she (Masina) used to play on the trombone, and she told him, 'Oh, she died.' So he goes out, gets drunk, gets into a fight in a bar and ends up on the beach, howling at the stars. And that was where 'Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose' came from, because he was free from her, and I guess he would have traded all his tomorrows for another day with her."
The song's final defining image came to Kristofferson as he was driving in heavy rain to the airport for the flight home. "I went, 'With them windshield wipers slapping time and Bobby clapping hands we finally sang up every song the driver knew.' And that was it."
Fred Foster used a secretary's name as inspiration for the title. Her name was actually Bobbi McKee. By naming the character in the song "Bobby," it made sure a female singer could sing it without changing the name, since "Bobby" could refer to a man or woman.
In Twang - The Ultimate Book of Country Music Quotations
, Kristofferson is quoted as saying: "I had just gone to work for Combine Music. Fred Foster, the owner, called me and said, 'I've got a title for you: 'Me and Bobbie McKee,' and I thought he said 'McGee.' I thought there was no way I could ever write that, and it took me months hiding from him, because I can't write on assignment. But it must have stuck in the back of my head. One day I was driving between Morgan City and New Orleans. It was raining and the windshield wipers were going. I took an old experience with another girl in another country. I had it finished by the time I got to Nashville."
This was first recorded in 1969 by a country singer named Roger Miller, who is known for his hit "King Of The Road
Kris Kristofferson released this in 1970 on his first album, Kristofferson. A year later, when it became a hit for Joplin, Kristofferson's album was re-released as Me And Bobby McGee to take advantage of the song's new popularity.
This was released after Joplin died of a heroin overdose. Her death gave the album a lot of attention, and Pearl
went to #1. It was the second song to hit #1 in the US after the artist had died; "Dock Of The Bay
" by Otis Redding was the first.
The lyrics tell the story of two young lovers who travel together, but break up so they can discover the world on their own. The characters in the song were a lot like Joplin, who was known as a free spirit.
In the March 2006 issue of Esquire magazine, Kristofferson was asked where he was when he came up with the line, "Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose." His reply: "I was working the Gulf of Mexico on oil rigs, flying helicopters. I'd lost my family to my years of failing as a songwriter. All I had were bills, child support, and grief. And I was about to get fired for not letting 24 hours go between the throttle and the bottle. It looked like I'd trashed my act. But there was something liberating about it. By not having to live up to people's expectations, I was somehow free."
The line, "I pulled my Harpoon from my dirty red bandana" can be interpreted two ways. The more sanitized version considers the "Harpoon" as a slang word for harmonica. The second interpretation considers it a hypodermic needle, since a bandana was often used to tie off the arm before an addict shot up.
The version on Joplin's 1995 Greatest Hits album 18 Essential Songs contains an alternate version recorded as a demo.
Jerry Lee Lewis covered this in more of a country style several months after Joplin's version was released. His version hit #40 in the US.
This was Joplin's only Top 10 hit. She was a very influential and well-known singer, but her bluesy sound kept most of her songs off the pop charts.
The same year Joplin's version was issued, Kris Kristofferson released The Silver Tongued Devil and I, which was a successful album and finally solidified his place as a singer/songwriter.
Kristofferson performed an acoustic version of this song when Joplin was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2013. Kristofferson, who had a brief affair with Joplin, recalled hearing her rendition on the day of her death. He explained to Rolling Stone
magazine: "Her producer gave me the record and it was pretty hard to listen to. I was listening to it at my publisher's office where we used to hang out, there was nobody there and I was playing it over and over again just so I could hear it without breaking up."