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Kris Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobby McGee”

| June 22, 2013 | 38 Comments

“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.”

From Performing Songwriter Issue 107

Category: In Case You Haven't Heard

Comments (38)

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Sites That Link to this Post

  1. Me & My Free Will | My Blog | January 20, 2013
  2. Me and Bobby McGee « Diversão Halal | May 26, 2012
  1. Lessie says:

    In response to Yolanda asking if Kris hadn’t heard the song until after Janis passed how could there be videos. A lot of artist will write or find a song they like and preform the song live many times before they ever record it on an album to both get a feel for the song and to see how and audience will respond to the song. I have many friends that are working musicians I’ve seen this done a thousand times

  2. randy j says:

    Yolanda, I had a few non-beliefs in all this myself.i’ve read a couple Janis biographies in last few years and don’t recall her mentioning kris ever writing for her and had never heard Bobby McGee was a girl. jmo

  3. Jim Purviance says:

    Janis was fantastic in all the things she sang. But having KK as a fellow SMHS alumni is really good, too.

  4. Wendy says:

    Probably my favorite song. I actually got up on a stage in Santa Barbara and started to sing it, but was escorted out by the management. I had had a couple pitchers of Margaritas, and was a tad tipsy. I did know all the words, I just can’t carry a tune.

  5. Helen Shippelt Vath says:

    I was almost in tears just reading the story. Thank you for publishing it.

  6. Mary says:

    I cannot express enough what a phenomimal scholar Kris Kristopherson is. His talents are endless. I’m grateful to be a apart of his generation,to be a part of music the likes that will never be again. Rock on!

  7. timconnett says:

    iconic song by Janis great version also by the grateful dead

  8. Miki says:

    Without Janis Joplin , I think nobody will ever heard about Bobby Mc Gee.

  9. Mary Rash McGee says:

    My husband’s name was Bobby McGee. The song reminds me of our relationship.

  10. Ray says:

    I can identify with his need to work it out. The song Cats in the Cradle has the same affect on me. I could not listen to that song with out being emotional. After my divorce and my ex took my son and daughter away far away I decided I would learn the song and for a few to many times I did not make it all the way through the song but after time desire to perform at your best takes over and your able to push the emotion aside sort of :D

  11. Ray says:

    That’s a great story I’m glad you shared it. I grew up listening to Janis Jimmy Stevie Ray and so many more gone to soon.

  12. Pete says:

    There were three songs that stuck out in my mind from the same period with the theme of freedom, and if for no one else, for me they’ll always remain linked in time.

    ‘Free’ by Chicago, ‘Freedom’ by Jimi Hendrix (unfortunately also released after he was already gone) and Janis’s version of ‘Bobby McGee’, with the imminently famous line regarding the value one can place on freedom.

    Never learned the other two, but years after having played this behind my ex singing it, I’m finally adding it to my own repertoire now that I’ve decided I don’t have to live up to Janis and her inimitable version of it for it to be worth singing.

    Kris, thanks for sharing the story of the song from your view and also for writing it in the first place.

  13. J.Ivor malcolm De silva says:

    Mr Kristofferson,I really like your singing,Bobby Mcgee
    Why me lord and sunday morning coming down,I really I can see you to show my appreciation to you
    Janice Joplin sings it well equally as you
    take care

    Ivor De silva

  14. John says:

    I can’t hear Janis sing the song without
    tearing up. It brings back so many memories good and bad from almost 50 years ago.

    God bless her and I pray she is at peace.

  15. Brian Dixon says:

    Bobby Magee is iconic but I defy anyone to listen Duvaiers Last ride without a feeling of utter desolation

  16. Roger Peters says:

    No one else could have written this great song except KK, and in my opinion, no one else could ever do it any better than Jerry Lee Lewis.

  17. Bob Scarborough says:

    This is an interesting story. I always thought that this was taken from his experiences of travelling on the road. There where many songs in the 60′s about traveling like a hobo a la Woody Guthrie and I always lumped this one in with them.

    “When the Rooster crows at the break of dawn, look out your window and I’ll be gone” – from “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” by Bob Dylan

    “Someday you’ll look and I’ll be gone, for tomorrow may rain and I’ll follow the Sun” – from “I’ll Follow the Sun” by The Beatles

    “Since movin’ is my stock and trade, I’m movin’ on. I won’t think of you when I’m gone” – from “For Lovin’ Me” by Gordon Lightfoot.

    Interesting that one of the best covers of this song was by Gordon Lightfoot who seldom covered anybody since he wrote so many songs he could fill a 3 hour concert doing only his own stuff. Story is that when he first heard this song he thought nobody was doing it justice so he did his own rendition and added it to his repertoire. I suppose that with so many songs about being on the road he felt especially qualified to do this number.

  18. Matt says:

    Great backstory. Best writing is channeled!

  19. Steiner says:

    Yolanda and Elise:
    There is a video, recorded in Austin in around August 1970, of Janis performing the song solo (playing guitar) and talking about KK. You can find it on YouTube. So maybe KK had not seen/heard of that at the time Janis died soon thereafter. But there is a video nonetheless.

  20. dusty cashio says:

    World class songwriter. Happy birthday kris

  21. Bobbie McGee says:

    As you can imagine, having the name “Bobbie McGee” has been quite interesting for me…hundreds, if not thousands, of comments over the years! But it wasn’t until two years ago that it became even more interesting: I actually met the “real” Bobby McKee that the song was written about.

  22. Dwaine Johnson says:

    Me and Bobby McGee is one of my favorite songs. I like Janis Joplin’s, and Kris Kristofferson’s about the same. In the 60′s, Janis was my favorite singer for awhile. I did not get turned on to Kris, until the late seventy’s, though I knew who he was. To me, Kris is one of the best songwriters ever…

  23. HARRY DOBBINS says:

    My favorite KK song is TO BEAT THE DEVIL. Like Bobby Mcgee and Sunday Morning Coming Down it is about the Isolation of the Artist. thank you Kris.

  24. Elise says:

    Yolanda: It was a recording, not a video.

  25. jim duncan says:

    this man reached down in his soul when he wrote songs
    he is one of a kind.he wrote with his soul.

  26. Yolanda says:

    If the first time Kris Kristopherson heard Janis Joplin sing “Bobby McGee” was the day after her death, how can there be videos of her singing it?

  27. a r freiser says:

    I’ve always wondered how musicians can hold it together when performing songs that are so powerful I can’t even *think about* them (let alone hear them, let alone sing them) without collapsing in a small heap.
    Good to know this is how one phenomenal artist found his solution.
    Even better to know that he had to work at it.
    (I’d hate to think it was could ever become something like flipping burgers or digging ditches after a while.)
    If you ever read this, Mr K, thanks so much for everything. Ya done good.

  28. Alberto Salomone says:

    Kris wrote it but Janis made it her own and I thank Kris for a wonderful song but will ever or can ever deliver like “The Pearl ” did. God bless you Janis.

  29. jim r duncan says:

    i love reading about these people an how they were inspired,thank u this stuff is great
    jim r duncan ina il usa

  30. Shan Marie says:

    Wow, that’s very interesting! I love hearing the stories behind a song. So many people obviously relate to them already or they wouldn’t be so popular, but hearing the story behind it makes it even more special.

  31. Clinton R. LeFort says:

    A great performer brings out the fullest dimension of a song. How many more covers will be done of these great songs that are part of the collective music culture? It is hard to imagine not having songs like this written and produced by great musicians. It is like imagining Classical music without Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart, Bach; in the same way are performers like Janis Joplin….

  32. Clinton R. LeFort says:

    I believe when you have a person , like Janis Joplin, taking hold of a lyric like this song, the meaning is transparent to both the singer and the listener. What is more amazing is that each singer who does a cover of a great song adds somewhat of ‘twist’ on the dimension of its meaning.

  33. I always knew that Bobbie had a sex change.

  34. Jim Weber says:

    I have always been a big fan of yours.
    I like me and Bobby McGee, but my favorite is Sunday Morning Coming Down.
    I love that church bell in the back ground, just a simple ding dong, but it is so great.
    I love your lines too, like “found my cleanest dirty shirt”, “beer I had for breakfast wasn’t bad so I had another one more for dessert”.
    But the best line is “I’d been a month of paydays since I’d heard that eagle scream”.
    I like to brag that you are a Rhodes Scholar too.
    Happy Birthday, man

  35. Stan Johnson says:

    This song has always an amazing song for me it has this unique quality of looking inward while outward action is occurring. I love the introspection. “Freedom means…” and climing on a truck .. I also like the harpoon (harmonica)line.
    Thanks for sharing the meanings.

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