Faded jeans were a staple of the 1960s hippie getup.
The typical hippie outfit—which could be seen on Janis Joplin almost constantly—often included one or more of the following: faded jeans, big sunglasses, long, untamed hair, tie-dyed shirts, a bandana, maybe some beads, and a good ol’ pair of boots. (Just check out this goofy dude for one example.)
Clothes can tell you a lot about a culture or youth movement, and for the hippies in the 1960s, clothes were an especially vital part of the rebellion. The long hair symbolized a freedom from society’s gender restrictions, as well as its rigid, dogmatic way of life. Tie-dyed shirts were perhaps a tribute to the psychedelic drugs people were experimenting with at the time, which often rendered colors especially vivid (whoa, the colors man…), and perhaps it was also a celebration of difference—the acceptance of all colors, or all different kinds of people.
And why did they wear faded jeans? Jeans fade on their own, of course, but nowadays we buy them pre-faded. It’s such a staple of modern fashion that it’s strange to think they exist for any other reason than style, but the reason they have become stylish in the first place is because of the hippies. It is possible that some hippies simply couldn’t afford new jeans; their old ones faded in time, or they inherited some hand-me-downs. But the fact is that a lot of these young people came from wealthy families and could afford a new pair of Levi’s if they really wanted. The fact that it was stylish to have faded jeans was a way of identifying with those of the poorer working class, the struggling Americans. In hippie-speak, it was a way of saying, “Hey, man, I dig your cause.”
Another thing to think about is that culture at that time was greatly influenced by a somewhat modern trend in literature coming from writers from the 50s and 60s that were part of the “beat generation.” The name “beat” was chosen perhaps as a reference to the rhythmic style of their stream-of-consciousness way of writing, which was greatly influenced by the jazz music of the time. But “beat” had other implications as well, suggesting that these were people who were “beat” down by society, or “just beat,” as in tired, probably from having stayed up all night writing and perhaps consuming lots of alcohol and other drugs. So when Joplin sings that she’s as faded as the color of her jeans, it’s another way of saying “Man, I’m beat.”
While we’re certainly glad that Janis and Bobby made it out of the rain, we here at Shmoop DO NOT support hitchhiking.
Back in Janis’s day, hitchhiking was a common way for hippies to travel, especially across long distances through rural areas where public transportation might be expensive or nonexistent. Today hitchhiking is frowned upon in the US, though. And by frowned upon, we mean illegal. While many countries allow hitchhiking, most areas of the United States have strict laws against attempting to solicit a ride from a stranger. It is also illegal in many places to pick up a hitchhiker, so there’s that.
Not for nothing, either; hitchhiking can be extremely dangerous. Throughout the 20th century, several prominent serial killers have been connected to hitchhiking: Beach Boy Dennis Wilson came into contact with the Manson Family when he picked up two hitchhiking girls; Aileen Wuornos, whom you may recognize from the 2003 Charlize Theron movie Monster, murdered seven men who had each picked her up on the side of a Florida highway; the FBI has even gone on record as stating that they believe there to be a link between serial killers and truckers who work long-haul routes. So don’t hitchhike, kids.
By harpoon does she mean harmonica? It doesn’t sound like she’s going whaling…
The narrator pulls out a “harpoon” and plays it softly while Bobby sings the blues. A harpoon is probably just a nickname for the blues harp, a kind of harmonica that was used for playing the blues. On the other hand, the reason harpoon is its nickname could have more significance, since the hippies of the 60s tended to see their music as a form of rebellion—the music was the weapon of revolution. (It’s just like folk singer Woody Guthrie’s guitar, for example, on which he wrote, “this machine kills fascists.”)
Some people have argued that this line might be a reference to heroin, which was eventually the cause of Janis Joplin’s death. They say that the harpoon could represent the needle, and that a bandanna is sometimes the means by which the heroin user ties up his or her arm in order to use the drug. This is just speculation, though, much in the same way that some fans thought The Beatles song “Fixing a Hole” might be a reference to heroin even though the Beatles themselves disputed these claims. Though Joplin used heroin, the drug that would eventually take her life, the “harpoon” in this song most likely just refers to the musical instrument. Or she was planning to hunt down Moby Dick. Hey, you never know.
If freedom is having nothing left to lose, is it a good thing or a bad thing?
This is the signature line of the song, but it seems a little strange. The song seems to be a celebration of freedom and life on the road, but having nothing to lose sometimes means that you don’t have anything of real value.
On one hand, it could be that freedom, or having nothing to lose, really means freedom from material possessions. After all, that was one of the prime tenets of the 60s counterculture movement. Hippies rejected the worship of “things” and the idea that life and happiness were based on money and possessions. Perhaps by “nothing to lose” songwriter Kris Kristofferson meant “no thing to lose.” In other words, you have to give up your dependence on material possessions in order to be truly free. In that case, freedom is represented as a good thing.
On the other hand, Kristofferson has suggested that this line was one that he wrote after watching the end of the Fellini film La Strada. Like the characters in “Me and Bobby McGee”, the man and woman of the film travel together but part in sadness. Later, the man finds out the woman has died; in anguish, he goes out and gets drunk, gets in a fight, and ends up on a beach bawling his eyes out. That doesn’t strike us as a very happy ending.
Kristofferson also recollects that, like the man in the film, his song’s narrator “is free from [Bobby], and I guess he would have traded all his tomorrows for another day with her.” (If you’re confused by the gender pronouns, it’s because when the song was written, Bobby was supposed to be a woman and the speaker a male. Janis changed it up for her version.) So this famous line of the chorus can be interpreted as the narrator lamenting the loss of his lover or friend Bobby McGee, who was the only thing of value in his life, and who he may never see again. If that’s the case, then the song was prophetic, as Kristofferson and Joplin were actually known to have been lovers before her untimely death.