Me and Bobby McGee was Janis Joplin’s only number 1 hit , and it was 1 of only 2 posthumous number 1 songs in rock history – along with Sittin’ On the Dock of the Bay, by Otis Redding. The song was written by Kris Kristofferson, who was a lifelong friend of Janis, and her lover as well during the spring of 1970. He did not know that she had recorded his song and only heard it shortly after he got the news about her death at 27. The song was recorded for the album Pearl which was actually unfinished when she died, but was close enough to completion that her producer was able to wrap it up for release. It became her biggest selling album and is considered to be one of the best classic rock albums in history.
Kristofferson wrote the song with inspiration from a film by Fellini in which an orphaned disabled girl is abandoned as she slept by the character played by Anthony Quinn. She had constantly played a song on the trombone that drove him crazy, and he left her on the side of the road one night. Later as he is traveling through a town he hears a woman humming the same song at her work, and he discovers that the girl made it to the town but died there, alone.
Kristofferson’s interpretation of the refrain of the song is that freedom is a double-edged sword – that you can be free but there may be consequences. Janis’ version of the song, in which she reverses the gender of Bobby from the original, is usually seen as a wistful celebration of being a free spirit, with a yearning quality for a past that can never be regained. There is also the twist that a person can only truly be free when she or he has given up everything and has nothing left to lose – but she can’t give up on Bobby’s memory, and the feeling that she shouldn’t have let him slip away from her.
The song’s writer was devastated by her recording of his tune, coming so soon after her death, and he has said that he had to play it over and over until it didn’t make him cry – otherwise he would break down in tears whenever he heard it. He and a fellow songwriter later wrote a tune for Janis called Epitaph, in which he bemoans her being born black and blue, and dying all alone. He still performs his song so closely associated with Janis Joplin – Me and Bobby McGee – in concert, and thinks of her every time he does.
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