"Me and Bobby McGee" is a song that portrays what's often referred to as the "road story."
In it, there are two main characters: "Me" and "Bobby McGee," two friends or possibly lovers who are making their way to New Orleans despite their lack of resources. In the first verse of the song, the two travelers are exhausted and waiting for a train, but then they decide to hitchhike to their destination instead. They are picked up just before it starts to rain by a truck driver who takes them all the way to their destination, New Orleans. Along the way, they begin to play the blues, singing every song the driver knows.
The next verse takes us back in time, with the speaker remembering her days spent on the road with Bobby up until that moment, traveling cross-country from Tennessee to California. This can be seen as the middle of the story, in which the narrator describes how she and Bobby bared their souls to one another and formed a very intimate bond. Through all kinds of weather, she says—in other words, through experiences both good and bad—Bobby made her feel safe and warm.
The song ends, however, on a sadder note. Probably tired of life on the road, Bobby separates from the speaker, hoping to settle down and make a home. The speaker wishes Bobby the best, but she doesn't follow his lead. She continues to live her life on the road, despite the fact that, without Bobby, she can no longer find happiness.
Believe it or not, the story outlined above is one that has been told so many times that it constitutes its own genre, much like the Western. The details aren't always the same, of course, but the premise usually follows the same format: two close companions on the road, who have no home to go back to, are searching for some type of freedom, or something that represents freedom; they encounter strange people and have strange, sometimes dangerous adventures, but they never stay in one place for long; eventually, they part in sadness or disappointment, unable to find what they were looking for, and in many cases, their journeys end in death.
Sound familiar? How many films can you name that have a similar structure? This UC Berkeley website lists a whole slew of films that could be classified as "road movies," from Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers to Ridley Scott's Thelma and Louise. And that's just the big screen; what about books? Two classic examples are Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Jack Kerouac's On the Road, but there are hundreds—if not thousands—more.
Now, we know what you're thinking. We suspect you might be saying, "Hey, wait just a minute, Professor Shmoop. Those stories are all drastically different!"
You aren't wrong; the stories are by no means replicas of one another. They are all very different in detail, setting, character, conflict, etc. It is the underlying premise that remains the same through all different kinds of settings—from the dust bowls of The Grapes of Wrath to the wasted landscape of The Road—and maintains the cohesiveness of the genre. Try the test yourself: see how many films and books you know of that follow the three-part format mentioned above.
That underlying premise is such a staple of this genre because it represents something that resonates very powerfully in American culture: expansion and discovery. Even if the days of are long gone, these ideas were especially important to young people during the 1960s, when hippies were moving out west to California to expand their minds and discover themselves.
Not all hippies actually traversed the American countryside like the characters in "Me and Bobby McGee" (and the ones that did probably didn't resort to crime sprees like Bonnie and Clyde or Thelma and Louise); but the quest undertaken by the characters in a road story was a perfect metaphor for the real-life pursuit of an unrestricted, alternative way to live. People united in their rejection of accepted social norms and sought out more freeing lifestyles.
They searched for the 'real America' and the freedom that America promised but which they thought it wasn't delivering. The road story usually takes this search for the abstract notion of the 'real America' and presents it as a literal search through the actual landscape of the United States. Though the stories might have been made up or embellished, the sentiments evoked by the stories were very real.
Janis Joplin had a special connection to this story because it was an accurate reflection of her real life. Janis was the iconic hippie. Not only that, but her whole life was almost like one big road trip that started in Texas and ended with her untimely death by heroin overdose in 1970.
Joplin grew up in a city called Port Arthur, Texas, but she never felt at home there. She was an insecure girl not yet aware of the vocal power she would wield onstage in later years, and she just didn't fit in with the rest of her conservative community. She was also not what most would call conventionally pretty; as she revealed to Dick Cavett, she was chubby and had bad skin, and at one point was laughed out of class by the kids at school. Eventually, she says, she was laughed out of the town and state as well.
When she graduated high school, Joplin made an attempt to go to college, first at Lamar State College of Technology and then at University of Texas, but something compelled her to leave Texas. She abandoned her studies after less than a year and made her way to San Francisco, where she began to record music. In San Francisco, her drug use and drinking became excessive. Due to her ailing health (which was drug-related), she was persuaded to return to Port Arthur, Texas, where she cleaned up and tried once more to go to college and fit in with the rest of society.
But Joplin was not one to sit still in one place and follow someone else's idea of what her life should be. She began to commute to Austin to play shows (just her and an acoustic guitar), and eventually she caught the eye of a man named Chet Helms.
At the time, Helms managed a psychedelic rock band called Big Brother and the Holding Company. Joplin abandoned her studies once again (as well as any hope for leading a conventional lifestyle) and went with Helms back to San Francisco to begin singing for the band. With Big Brother and the Holding Company, Joplin began to spend much of her time traveling around the country playing gigs.
Joplin told Dick Cavett that she didn't enjoy being on the road. She simply considered it one of the dues you had to pay in order to be able to play music for a living. On these long, exhausting trips, she missed the company of her friends and family and frequently used drugs and alcohol to excess, but the music sustained her.
It sounds just like the narrator of "Me and Bobby McGee." The narrator tells us in the song that "feeling good was easy Lord, when [Bobby] sang the blues," even though being on the road made her feel "nearly as faded as my jeans." When Bobby leaves the narrator to try to settle down, the narrator doesn't seem to even consider following Bobby's footsteps. Similarly, in real life, Joplin never seemed to slow down (let alone stop and settle and start a family), even while those around her eventually went the way of Bobby. Getting off the road meant putting her music career on hold, and that was not an option. Without her music, Joplin would certainly have "nothing left to lose," just like the narrator of the song.
Seeing the real connection between the lyrics and Joplin's life endows the song with a new power in the wake (excuse the pun) of Joplin's death. "Me and Bobby McGee" was released right after Joplin's death, and the tragedy may have been one reason that the song skyrocketed directly to the top of the charts. Because of this sad but significant timing, "Me and Bobby McGee" takes on an even greater meaning; it becomes the last hoorah for a martyr of the 1960s, a final cry from a great decade that had literally just drawn to a close, taking many idyllic dreams with it.
We don't want to leave you on such a melancholy note—the song already took care of that for us—because connecting the dots between "Me and Bobby McGee" and Joplin's real life shows us many other factors that contributed to the song's lasting success and power. It's almost as if the song was made specifically for her, which is not completely far-fetched; the song was co-written by Kris Kristofferson, a lover and friend of Janis Joplin's.
But there is evidence to the contrary: The song was originally written with the narrator as a man and Bobby McGee as a woman, and it was recorded a couple times before Joplin got her hands on it. Singer Roger Miller got dibs on the first recording of the song, and his version landed on the country music charts. But despite the song having been covered hundreds of times over, including by Kristofferson himself, Janis Joplin's take stands out as the definitive version. (It is similar to the way Aretha Franklin's version of Otis Redding's chauvinistic song "Respect" became the definitive and most popular version because it carried deeper connotations of female empowerment—and of course the performance is incredible.)
Perhaps it's the grit and unruliness of Joplin's voice and the sheer emotion that went into her performance that makes her version the most powerful and believable. Or perhaps it's because the story in the song so reflects her own life; she was able to channel her personal struggles and make the song her own.
Whatever the reason, "Me and Bobby McGee" isn't only one of Janis Joplin's signature songs and the definitive version of a frequently-covered song, but it's also a touchstone for the cultural revolution of the 1960s and rock music in general.