When the beginnings of this song were forming in Kris Kristofferson’s head, they were sitting right next to some lingering thoughts about a movie he had recently watched, called La Strada. In this Frederico Fellini-directed film, a traveling entertainer and his female helper develop a complicated relationship as they traverse the country together, until one abandons the other. Though the man desperately searches for the woman, he is informed of a tragedy that will ensure they never see each other again.
Perhaps the road on which he was driving was bumpy and these thoughts were jumbled together, somehow he came away with a story song that is similar to that of the film. The narrator of “Me and Bobby McGee” lets Bobby “slip away,” and the implication is that it might be forever.
But though elements of the story are pulled from La Strada, the fact is that they are also elements shared by dozens of other road movies. What sets one road story apart from the next is detail, and the song’s are somewhat based on Kristofferson’s own experiences. He started to develop the lyrics while driving between Morgan City and New Orleans in the pouring rain (hence the lines about leaving Baton Rouge and the windshield wipers “slapping time” with the song.) He also said he was influenced by an experience with a certain girl from his past.
And therein lies the twist:
Janis Joplin was Kristofferson’s friend and sometimes lover. With her “nothing to lose” way of life and her iconic “free spirit” attitude, there is no doubt that Joplin resembles one of the two travelers in the song. Whether Kristofferson had her in mind when he wrote the tune is uncertain, but what is certain is that the song was a perfect fit for Joplin.