Earworm of the week: Me and Bobby McGee

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Here it is, by the great, the inimitable, the one and only Janis Joplin:

This is the most serious earworm infection I've had for many years.  It can attack me at any moment:  when I'm washing my face, brushing my teeth, walking down the street, getting in my truck (Tacoma!), getting off the SEPTA trolley, eating a meal….  Any part of the song can take over, flitting in and out of my (sub)consciousness, but it's usually just the lines highlighted in red below, where she's not really saying any words, just mumbling and humming.  That in itself is an interesting facet of earworm studies, which take into account both musical and lingual aspects of the phenomenon, since it seems to indicate that perhaps the musical side of the bug is more prominent than the verbal.

Lyrics

Busted flat in Baton Rouge, waitin' for a train
When I's feelin' near as faded as my jeans
Bobby thumbed a diesel down just before it rained
And rode us all the way into New Orleans
 
I pulled my harpoon out of my dirty red bandana
I's playin' soft while Bobby sang the blues
Windshield wipers slappin' time
I's holdin' Bobby's hand in mine
We sang every song that driver knew
 
Freedom's just another word for nothin' left to lose
Nothin', it ain't nothin' honey, if it ain't free
And feelin' good was easy, Lord, when he sang the blues
You know feelin' good was good enough for me
Good enough for me and my Bobby McGee
 
From the Kentucky coal mines to the California sun
Yeah, Bobby shared the secrets of my soul
Through all kinds of weather, through everything we done
Yeah, Bobby baby kept me from the cold
 
One day up near Salinas, Lord, I let him slip away
He's lookin' for that home and I hope he finds it
Well, I'd trade all my tomorrows for one single yesterday
To be holdin' Bobby's body next to mine
 
Freedom's just another word for nothin' left to lose
Nothin', and that's all that Bobby left me
Well, feelin' good was easy, Lord, when he sang the blues
And feelin' good was good enough for me
Good enough for me and my Bobby McGee, yeah
 
La da da, la da daa, la da daa da daa da daa
La da da da daa dadada Bobby McGee-ah
La li daa da daa daa, la da daa da daa
La la laa la daada Bobby McGee-ah yeah
La di da, ladida la dida la di daa, ladida la dida la di daa
 
Hey now Bobby now now Bobby McGee yeah
Lo lo lo lolo lo lo laa, lololo lo lolo lo lolo lo lolo lo la laa
Hey now Bobby now now Bobby McGee yeah
Lord, I called him my lover, I called him my man
I said I called him my lover, did the best I can
C'mon, hey now Bobby now, hey now Bobby McGee, yeah
Lo lo Lord, a Lord, a Lord, a Lord, a Lord, a Lord, a Lord, oh
Hey, hey, hey, Bobby McGee, Lord
 

Selected readings



25 Comments »

  1. Cervantes said,

    September 12, 2021 @ 7:37 am

    Kris Kristofferson wrote the song,and the nonsense syllable verse was part of his original composition and performance. Joplin's version is a pretty straight cover.

  2. Victor Mair said,

    September 12, 2021 @ 7:42 am

    @Cervantes

    Can you or someone else provide a link to KK's original performance? I know that, together with F. Foster, he is listed as one of the writers of the song, but I never heard him perform it.

  3. Philip Taylor said,

    September 12, 2021 @ 8:01 am

    Youtube suggests this one.

  4. Victor Mair said,

    September 12, 2021 @ 9:14 am

    Thanks.

    Here's a very early version by Kris Kristofferson.

    "Kris Kristofferson 'Me & Bobby McGee' 1970 (Reelin' In The Years Archive)"

    Didn't detect any ladidadida.

    Judging from the way he concludes this version, it almost sounds as though it were still in process of composition.

  5. cliff arroyo said,

    September 12, 2021 @ 12:50 pm

    For some reason an old interview with Kristofferson got stuck in my mind….
    Anyhoo, what I remembered was that he seemed a little critical of Joplin's interpretation, while probably not feeling comfortable openly criticizing an official Legend and a recording that presumably made a lot of money for him (it had been a billboard #1).
    Specifically IIRC he was dissatisfied with her phrasing which didn't follow the rhythms he'd written very closely, especially around the line "windshield wipers slappin' time"

    I see the interview is online, but behind a paywall I have no interest in crossing….

    https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-features/kris-kristoffersons-talking-blues-241302/

  6. Gene Hill said,

    September 12, 2021 @ 12:55 pm

    Thanks Victor. "Bobby McGee" has always been one of my favorite songs. Which is strange because it is the only Janice Joplin song I ever liked. Written by Kris Kristofferson. I think he was a very talented poet, but just couldn't sing a note I wanted to hear. The chance combination of these two talents was a gift to all struggling young couples in that era. Janice was able to rise in the bow of Kris's poetry. His ability to dash down deep philosophical lines with such frugality of words was remarkable. "I'd trade all my tomorrows for a single yesterday, holding Bobbie's body next to mine" I placed it on my Facebook. Thanks again.

  7. Jason M said,

    September 12, 2021 @ 1:07 pm

    I saw him live at the Pageant in St. Louis (great venue) just maybe 3 years ago or so (Kris K I mean). He performed Bobby McGee. Pretty sure the La-la’s were there. A couple more items about him: he had stopped performing because he couldn’t remember his songs. Everyone thought he had dementia. Turns out it was tertiary (neurological) Lyme disease that responded to treatment. So he went back out ion tour, though he did start one song and stop saying he couldn’t remember more.

    He also was an outstanding student at Pomona and, later, at Merton College, Oxford, as a Rhodes Scholar. Like Joplin, Kristofferson is from Texas.

  8. Coby said,

    September 12, 2021 @ 2:25 pm

    In the original lyrics, as sung by Roger Miller, Bobby McGee is a woman and the pronouns are "she" and "her."

  9. Rob said,

    September 12, 2021 @ 4:25 pm

    Thanks for the memory! JJ is the best singer of this song, but a close second was the bass player of Chris Barber's Jazz Band – live. Going back a good few years though.

  10. maidhc said,

    September 12, 2021 @ 8:13 pm

    Janis Joplin's vocal was a rough track that would have been redone later on. It was not intended to be the final version that would be released. But Janis died and that was the only vocal track they had.

    Sometimes the immediacy of a first take works really well, even though it may have various minor imperfections.

  11. Trevor Stone said,

    September 12, 2021 @ 9:50 pm

    I first heard Me and Bobby McGee from the Grateful Dead. For years I thought the line was "Freedom's just another word for nothing left to do", which I still think makes more logical sense.

  12. Philip Taylor said,

    September 13, 2021 @ 4:07 am

    Cliff — paywall — as often, Google is your friend.

  13. bks said,

    September 13, 2021 @ 7:17 am

    No comments on "harpoon"? I always assumed it was "pulled my harp on out of".

  14. cliff arroyo said,

    September 13, 2021 @ 7:34 am

    @Phillip Taylor, thank you, for some reason the stored copy option is often missing in my browser but I thought someone else might provide a helpful link.

    Anyhoo, I see that my memory condensed two separate things – his not wanting to talk about Jopin "It's like grave-robbin'" and a mild kvetch about her changing his lyrics.

    @bks
    I was curious about that too… so I looked a little and found this:

    http://www.wordwizard.com/phpbb3/viewtopic.php?f=7&t=18389&sid=cab6209d907a6fb374fd9186fb8d8eee#p59624

    quick summary: (mouth) harp for harmonica is an older expression but harpoon for harmonica seems to date from the 1969 song Me and Bobby McGee.

  15. Morten Jonsson said,

    September 13, 2021 @ 8:06 am

    Kristofferson's diction could get a little bookish at times–"the coal mines of Kentucky," "she's looking for that home I hope she'll find"–and it doesn"t quite fit with things like "nothin' ain't worth nothin'" and "through everything I done." Joplin does a nice job of roughening it up a bit: "the KEN-tucky coal mines" (which makes a nice parallel with "the California sun"), "he's looking for that home and I hope he finds it."

    There are a lot of memorable performances of this song. Jerry Lee Lewis's is a bit of a shock if all you know is Joplin's. He's got no time for any hippie sentimentality. His Bobby is a longhaired gal he hung out with for a while, and didn't they have a hell of a time. It's as if the truck driver is singing it.

  16. Victor Mair said,

    September 13, 2021 @ 8:07 am

    Didn't detect any ladidadida in the version shared by Philip Taylor.

    In Janis Joplin's rendition, the ladidadida section is longer and more elaborate than in any other version I've heard. It's like a virtuoso cadenza, where her voice is the instrument. Her version is by no means "a pretty straight cover".

    JJ died at the age 27, "of an accidental heroin overdose in 1970". Three months after her death, in January, 1971, her "Me and Bobby McGee" was published posthumously and was the 2nd posthumously published song ever to reach number 1 in U.S. chart history.

    If you want to see JJ at her most manic, try this: "Janis Joplin – Ball and Chain (sensational performance at Monterey)".

    I think she was a nearly superhuman genius.

  17. Victor Mair said,

    September 13, 2021 @ 8:11 am

    Notes about the song from the version shared by Philip, where, among other interesting things, we learn that Bobby McKee (in the embryonic thoughts that led to the song) was a girl!:

    The song: Kris once said that he has never written a song on assignment, except for this one. But this was really kind of a funny story…

    Fred Foster (record producer and Monument Records chief) gave him the idea for it. Fred had been asked by some friends who were working with a girl named Bobby McKee, if there was something with him and her, and he answered, "What! Me and Bobby McKee! Never!" Maybe that rhymed so nicely that he wanted Kris, who had just started writing for Combine Music, to write a nice song about it. He called him up, "I have a song title for you. It's Me and Bobby McKee, and the hook is, Bobby is a SHE!" For Kris this sounded like the worst idea for a song, but Fred said, "they'll be traveling around or something", and, "Try to write it." This was really not easy for Kris since he usually arranges his own thoughts into songs. So he hid from Fred for a couple of months not to be asked about it, before he really started thinking about the song. But then he saw this movie "La Strada" by Fellini, with Anthony Quinn and Giulietta Masina. And there were some scenes in it that inspired him for the story and the famous line "Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose…." He just got the name a little wrong…

  18. Bloix said,

    September 13, 2021 @ 9:54 am

    It always seemed clear to me that Kristofferson wrote Bobby as a girl. The clearest tell is that the narrator is the harmonica player and Bobby is the one who sings. Given the gender roles of the time, it would have been unusual for a girl to accompany her boyfriend's singing. It still would be, to be honest.

    On harpoon: Mudcat has a few attestations (along with a lot of nonsense as usual) for harpoon=harmonica –
    https://mudcat.org/thread.cfm?threadid=20525#214078
    My speculation is that it originated as a humorous extension of harp.

  19. Bloix said,

    September 13, 2021 @ 10:16 am

    More on harpoon:
    There was a Nashville session musician named Charlie McCoy who played harmonica. In 1961 he formed a band called Charlie McCoy and the Escorts. The band had a minor hit in 1964 with "Harpoon Man," a blues number that describes a band that's "got a guy who's 6 foot 5 and weighs 300 pounds, and when he plays his harpoon the people gather round."

    https://www.theeastnashvillian.com/charlie-mccoy-and-the-escorts/
    http://www.45cat.com/record/nc519327us

    You can listen to McCoy play his harpoon here:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HA84jeRauHc

  20. gds555 said,

    September 14, 2021 @ 10:32 am

    If I may take the liberty of introducing a dissenting opinion here—and I realize how much this is going to ruffle some feathers—I’ve always disliked the song “Me and Bobby McGee”, and the moment I hear a second or two of it my brain starts trying to shut it out. The reason I dislike it is the dichotomy—which I don’t think is intentional but rather is just a consequence of the limitations of Kris Kristofferson’s musical sensibilities—between the intense, dramatic character of the lyrics and the silly, frivolous, almost childish character of the melody and harmony. I think it’d be good if at some point some more astute and musically ambitious songwriter were to obtain the rights to write a new song to the lyrics, giving them, while staying within a folk-grounded style, the music they deserve.

    As the saying goes, everybody’s entitled to my opinion.

  21. Batchman said,

    September 15, 2021 @ 1:27 pm

    Much can be written about gender role switching in popular songs when they are made hits by a singer of the opposite gender to the author. "Me and Bobby McGee" is an obvious example, as is Mike Nesmith's "Different Drum" as recorded by Linda Ronstadt. Marvin Gaye's "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" was a hit for Gladys Knight before Gaye recorded it, and that resulted in at least one lyric line having to change ("I know a man ain't supposed to cry"). There must be many other instances, but I can't come up with any off the top of my head about a male recording a song written from a female perspective.

    (Not wanting to get into sexual or gender polarity issues here. I'm speaking purely from the traditional viewpoint, as these songs were written back then on a presumed hetero/cis basis.)

  22. Jerry Friedman said,

    September 15, 2021 @ 2:07 pm

    Batchman: "There is a Tavern in the Town" seems to be written from a woman's point of view (in the cishet world of the time), but I believe it's normally sung by a man or men, possibly dealing with any guilt feelings they may have about abandoning women by drinking in a bar. Rudy Vallée made well-known recordings.

    "Danny Boy" sounds like a love song to a man, but it's often sung by a tenor. I suspect the singer is then supposed to be Danny's father.

    In a high point of Jesus Christ Superstar, Judas, about to commit suicide, reprises Mary Magdalene's song "I Don't Know How to Love Him" with different lyrics.

  23. Jerry Friedman said,

    September 15, 2021 @ 2:23 pm

    See also this short list.

  24. gds555 said,

    September 15, 2021 @ 4:07 pm

    A notable example of a male having recorded a song written from a female perspective is Elvis’s 1956 recording of “Hound Dog”, which Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller wrote in 1952 for Big Mama Thornton (1926-1984), and which underwent many permutations from 1952 to 1956 and beyond—permutations that, oddly, included no serious attempt to get the lyrics to make any sense for the Elvis version. The Wikipedia article about the song contains an enormous amount of information about its origin, career, and significance.

  25. Bloix said,

    September 17, 2021 @ 8:03 am

    The Nashville songwriter Robert Lee Castleman wrote "The Lucky One" (the Alison Krauss hit, not the more recent Taylor Swift song) on spec as a good ol' boy anthem – "I'm the lucky one." Krauss heard the demo and asked Castleman if she could have it. She changes the gender of the singer while leaving character's gender alone – "You're the lucky one" – and it's a much better song.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jcRZ_J_VgNc

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