“The title came from [producer and Monument Records founder] Fred Foster. He called one night and said, ‘I’ve got a song title for you. It’s “Me and Bobby McKee.”’ I thought he said ‘McGee.’ Bobby McKee was the secretary of Boudleaux Bryant, who was in the same building with Fred. Then Fred says, ‘The hook is that Bobby McKee is a she. How does that grab you?’ (Laughs) I said, ‘Uh, I’ll try to write it, but I’ve never written a song on assignment.’ So it took me a while to think about.
“There was a Mickey Newbury song that was going through my mind—‘Why You Been Gone So Long?’ It had a rhythm that I really liked. I started singing in that meter.
“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. Later in the film, he sees this woman hanging out the wash and singing the melody that the girl used to play on the trombone. He asks, ‘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 goes to a bar and gets in a fight. He’s drunk and ends up howling at the stars on the beach. To me, that was the feeling at the end of ‘Bobby McGee.’ The two-edged sword that freedom is. He was free when he left the girl, but it destroyed him. That’s where the line ‘Freedom’s just another name for nothing left to lose’ came from.
“The first time I heard Janis Joplin’s version was right after she died. Paul Rothchild, her producer, asked me to stop by his office and listen to this thing she had cut. Afterwards, I walked all over L.A., just in tears. I couldn’t listen to the song without really breaking up. So when I came back to Nashville, I went into the Combine [Publishing] building late at night, and I played it over and over again, so I could get used to it without breaking up. [Songwriter and keyboardist] Donnie Fritts came over and listened with me, and we wrote a song together that night about Janis, called ‘Epitaph’.
“‘Bobby McGee’ was the song that made the difference for me. Every time I sing it, I still think of Janis.”