As we said in our Songwriting section, Kris Kristofferson first began thinking of this song when he'd been ruminating on a film called La Strada.
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 songs 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's no doubt that Joplin resembles one of the two travelers in the song. Whether Kristofferson had her in mind to be his speaker when he wrote the tune is uncertain, but what is certain is that the song was a perfect fit for Joplin.
"Me and Bobby McGee" is Janis Joplin's most successful and recognizable song. Because she changed Bobby's gender from Kris Kristofferson's original version, she hints that she's singing from her own perspective and not that of a fictional narrator or protagonist.
When Joplin says "Me" in the song, listeners are sure that she is inserting her real self into the role of the narrating character and implying all of the notoriety, history, and attitude of her life along with it. The nameless narrator becomes a personification of a rock and roll icon who left the world too soon (Joplin's version of "Me and Bobby McGee" wasn't even released until after her death).
Though Janis Joplin changed the genders of the two characters, making Bobby McGee a he, she didn't have to change the much of lyrics thanks to Fred Foster, who is credited as a co-writer. Foster knew a female secretary named Bobby McKee, and he suggested that name to Kristofferson because it was ambiguous enough to fit either male or female (Kristofferson must have just heard, or wanted to hear, McGee instead of McKee; it's softer on the ears).
It was likely a business decision on his part, because he felt that this would allow for any singer to record the song, regardless of gender. This move paid off, as it led to Joplin being able to record the song to its pinnacle of success.
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.
In the end, elements of the song are pulled from the story of La Strada, but the song is also inspired by plenty of other road movies, poems, and stories. Plus, Kristofferson also said he wrote the lyrics while driving from Morgan City to New Orleans in the rain, and it's influenced by an experience he once shared with a girl.