NOTE: This is a pre-production transcript and may not match the final show precisely.
Hey, Cuz! Welcome to the next episode of How Good It Is, the show that takes a closer look at songs from the rock and roll era, and we check out some of the stories behind those songs. And today, we’re going travelling with Bobby McGee.
Hi there! I’m Claude Call, and I miss my mom. Trivia, right after this:
[Key of Q Promo]
Go check it out. He puts a cool lens on stuff but it’s not a single-minded program.
It’s Trivia Time and once again, the folks at The Sound of Vinyl have done the research so I don’t have to. What is the track by Johnny Cash that’s been covered more than any other?
I gotta say, I did manage to guess this one so it may not be that tough. But I will have that answer for ye at the end of the show.
Today we’re talking about the song “Me and Bobby McGee,” a tune written by Kris Kristofferson and made popular by Janis Joplin when it was released shortly after her death. And while it’s pretty common knowledge that the song was written by Kris Kristofferson, what you may NOT know is that neither Kristofferson nor Joplin were the first to record and release the song. In fact, Kristofferson was somewhere around fifth in line.
But for the bigger story, as usual, we need to back up just a wee bit.
Music producer Fred Foster had a songwriter friend named Boudleaux Bryant. Bryant, along with his wife Felice is the writer behind the hits All I Have to Do is Dream, Bye Bye Love, and Wake Up Little Susie for the Everly Brothers, not to mention Love Hurts, which was a hit for Roy Orbison and Nazareth. At any rate, Foster went to visit Bryant, and Bryant teased him that the only reason he came to visit was so that he could see Bryant’s secretary, a woman named Barbara McKee, with a K. And while Barbara was her given name, everyone called her Bobbie. How “Bobbie” was spelled is up for debate. Bryant might have been a little bit correct in that—Foster may, in fact, have had a little crush on Bobbie—but the joke stuck in his mind enough that when Foster called Kristofferson on the phone one night afterward, he made a suggestion to the songwriter that he write a song called Me and Bobby McKee. But that’s all Foster had, was a title and nothing else. There was also an idea that the listener would be led to believe that “Bobby” was a male, and then the character turns out to be female, but apparently that notion didn’t last. At any rate, Kristofferson heard McGee rather than McKee, and the name stuck. Kristofferson said initially he spent some time avoiding Foster, because he had trouble writing on assignment and he didn’t have any ideas at first.
In an interview with Performing Songwriter Magazine in 2008, Kristofferson said that there was a Mickey Newbury song going through his head, and that he kind of liked the rhythm, so he started working in that meter. That song was Why You Been Gone So Long, which is what you’re hearing now. So this was the tempo he was originally working in.
Kristofferson said he was also influenced by the Fellini film La Strada. In the film, Anthony Quinn is traveling about on a motorcycle, and he’s got a feeble-minded girl with him who plays the trombone. Quinn’s character finally can’t put up with her anymore and he abandons her by the side of the road while she’s sleeping. Later in the film, he sees a woman hanging laundry and she’s singing the melody that the girl with the trombone used to play. When he asks her where she heard the song, she tells him that there was a little girl who showed up in town and nobody knew where she’d come from, and later on she died. That night, Quinn goes to a bar, gets drunk and gets into a fight. He ends up on the beach howling at the stars. Kristofferson said that the feeling conveyed at the end of the film helped him structure the song. He changed some of the details to make it an American setting, but the intimacy of the ideas stayed behind. Kristofferson explained in the interview that Freedom becomes a double-edged sword. Quinn’s character was free when he left the girl, but it also destroyed him in the end. And that’s what’s at the heart of the line “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.”
Now, as I mentioned earlier, the song was meant to use the name “Bobby” as a gender-twist kind of gag, but that fell by the wayside. However, the relative neutrality of the name “Bobby” means that the song can be song by either sex, with only minor changes in the lyrics, so it’s become a popular song to sing. In fact, as I also mentioned earlier, neither Kristofferson nor Joplin were first to record it.
No, that distinction went to Roger Miller, who released his version in 1969, and it went to Number 12 on the Billboard Country chart. Check out his transition to the first iteration of the chorus…
Interesting, right? The next recording came from Kenny Rogers, when he was still with the First Edition. The song appeared on the Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town album, but so far as I know it wasn’t released as a single.
And maybe that’s just as well.
In 1970, Gordon Lightfoot released his version, which went to the top of the Canadian Country chart:
And that same year, Kristofferson recorded it for his own debut album. This version also appeared in Monte Hellman’s film Two-Lane Blacktop. You can also see him singing it in the Dennis Hopper film called The Last Movie. Here’s some of his version from that album, with an odd little beginning on it:
[KRISTOFFERSON into JOPLIN]
Now, according to a 2009 article in Rolling Stone, Kristofferson sang the song for Janis Joplin, and singer Bob Neuwirth , who you might remember as a co-writer on “Mercedes Benz,” taught the song to her. Joplin recorded the song just a couple of days before her death, so Kristofferson had no idea she’d recorded it until the day after she died. He said that producer Paul Rothchild called him over to his office to listen to something Janis had cut, and he spent the rest of the day wandering around Los Angeles in tears. Joplin’s version went huge, making her only the second artist to have a posthumous number one record on the Billboard Hot 100, right behind Otis Redding, and which only five other artists have done although, of those seven artists, two had reached Number One previously. At any rate, the song has been covered lots of times since then, but Joplin’s remains pretty much the definitive version.
And on a personal note, I think this song is some of Kristofferson’s best writing, but it absolutely soared in Joplin’s hands. Not just for the line about freedom being another word for nothing left to lose, but just the imagery that he brings forth in lyrics like “windshield wipers slapping time” and the way Joplin gives you her pain in the line “I’d trade all my tomorrows for a single yesterday”…and then you move into the exuberance of the last third of the song…she really turned it into art. That’s why that recording is in the top third of Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.
And for what it’s worth, when Fred Foster was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2016, during which Kristofferson performed their song, one of the audience members was a slightly older woman by the name of Barbara McKee.
And now it’s time to answer our trivia question. Back on Page Two I asked you which track by Johnny Cash has been covered more than any other. Well, let me tell you that three tracks are tied for fourth place, and two for fifth, so that’s half the list of ten songs already. So let me just hit you with the top three. None of these will come as a surprise to you, but the order might. In the Number Three Position we have Folsom Prison Blues, with 29 covers. At Number Two with 46 covers it’s Ring of Fire. So if you hadn’t previously, you’ve probably already guessed that the number one Johnny Cash song for covers is I Walk the Line, with 99 covers recorded. A Boy Named Sue, Jackson, Sunday Morning Coming Down? None of them even made the Top Ten, and the Number Ten song was only covered four times. I guess most Johnny Cash songs STAY Johnny Cash songs.
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Next time around, we’re going to find out How Good It Is when we look at a couple of songs made possible by Janis Joplin’s recording of “Me and Bobby McGee.” Are you confused by that? You won’t be for long.
Thanks for listening, I’ll talk to you next time.