It is time for another the Original vs. the Cover and this time it is another trio of versions. This time we are discussing the song “Me and Bobby McGee” which was written by Kris Kristofferson and Fred Foster, but let’s be honest, Fred only gave the song the title. The versions we are covering are the original release by Roger Miller (1969), Kris Kristofferson’s own version (1970) and then the version by Janis Joplin (1971). There were actually two other versions released in 1970 by Gordon Lightfoot and the Statler Brothers and then in 1971, Jerry Lee Lewis released a version. That is 6 versions in 3 years. Insane. I’m going to stick with my three.
The song was started by Fred Foster, the head of the label Kris was signed, when he went to Kris with a song title called “Me and Bobbie McKee” which Kris thought it he heard McGee. Kris didn’t think he could write the song, so he avoided Foster for months until he finally got it written.
The song is about a couple that is traveling across the southern part of the country. They are hitchhiking, singing the blues and discovering the land and each other. They end up breaking up and going their own ways and the singer is filled with sadness and regret about them parting as I believe he loved that Bobby McGee. I could go in to more depth about the song and the lyrics, but then this would turn in to a My Sunday Song episode where we deep dive in to the songs. This is about which version is the best so we will get to that part of the show.
Roger’s version was country slanted full of guitar pickin’ and a mouth harp at a relatively mid-tempo. Then the last part of the song turned in to a little more uptempo with some horns added that gave the song a slight mariachi sound. I believe the beginning had a more country / blues feel as they were in New Orleans and then by the end of the song they are in California and that is the more mariachi sound. That is the only reason I can see for the change in the song.
Roger’s vocals are great and he sings in a pretty traditional country delivery. His singing is more pleasant and has a more upbeat, happy tone and I think misses some of the sadness and regret the narrator has after Bobby McGee. But he sounds like he is celebrating his time with her. Overall, it is a great version of the song.
Kris Kristofferson’s version is all pure traditional country. A much darker, slower tempo with the song opening on a lonely acoustic guitar as other instruments are slowly added. The chorus has a harmonica like Roger’s version but this harmonica is haunting and sad. The second verse picks up a little on the tempo but musically it stays with the same instrumentation and no added horns. The song is actually drawn out to about 20 seconds longer, but doesn’t feel it.
Kristofferson’s vocals are more deliberate and darker in tone. His voice is more mature sounding, deeper and has his emotions laid out there for all to see. His vocals are full of that Blues texture and fit perfectly with that darker texture of the instruments. It feels simple, but so full of character. It keeps to overall sadness feel throughout as he thinks back and misses Bobby. It is not a happy version, but is it the better version?
Janis Joplin’s version has that country feel, but a little more gusto and brings in a little of the rock edge. There is a little more drumming in the song and still has that guitar pickin’ feel to have the country vibe. The song is more uptempo and they add some killer organ and piano elements to give the song a whole new dynamic. The end of the song is a full on jam with the piano getting a solo, the organ thrown in and some fine guitar work. It is a blues rock song and gives a third completely different take on the song.
Janis Joplin’s vocals are a little of that Janis squeak and full of the grit we love. As the tempo picks up so does her powerful vocals and the free spirit she exudes fits perfectly in a song about that free spirit. With the title character name of Bobby, she can convert it to a man with no problem. The song ends with the same “la, la, la’s” as all of them, but Janis plays with them and takes them to levels the other gentlemen can’t reach. It adds a playfulness to the song and shows off what a powerhouse she is. But is it the best version?
Okay, this might the hardest choice I have ever had to make on an Original vs Cover song. You have 3 completely different and completely outstanding takes on a song. Roger Miller’s is more traditional country, but more upbeat and a mariachi feel at the end. Kris Kristofferson’s version is traditional country as well, but is a slower tempo and very dark and full of sadness and regret. Janis Joplin brings us a blues, country, rock song with a faster tempo and full of that trademark Janis grit and power. It is really up to the listener and your taste.
Since I have to pick one, I think I will go with Janis’ version. Not just for her vocals, but musically I love the jamming of the piano and organ. The musicianship is outstanding. Janis is no slouch either. She delivers one of her finest appointments. Hell, even Kris mentioned that after hearing her version, it was her version he would think about when he played that song. It was actually the Janis version of the song that changed Kris’ career to the better afterwards. But there are no right or wrong answers here as you can’t go wrong with any of the versions.
I am really interested in hearing what everyone else thinks of these two songs. Let me know which version you like the best and why. Feel free to leave a comment and talk about the song and tell me how right or wrong I am on this one. Thanks for stopping by and have a great day.
“Me And Bobby McGee”
(originally by Roger Miller)
Feelin’ nearly faded as my jeans.
Bobby thumbed a diesel down just before it rained,
Took us all the way to New Orleans.
Took my harpoon out of my dirty red bandana
And was blowin’ sad while Bobby sang the blues,
With them windshield wipers slappin’ time and
Bobby clappin’ hands we finally sang up every song
That driver knew.
And nothin’ ain’t worth nothin’ but it’s free,
Feelin’ good was easy, Lord, when Bobby sang the blues,
And buddy, that was good enough for me,
Good enough for me and my Bobby McGee.
From the coal mines of Kentucky to the California sun,
Bobby shared the secrets of my soul,
Standin’ right beside me through everythin’ I done,
And every night she kept me from the cold.
Then somewhere near Salinas, Lord, I let her slip away,
She was lookin’ for the love I hope she’ll find,
Well I’d trade all my tomorrows for a single yesterday,
Holdin’ Bobby’s body next to mine.
Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose,
And nothin’ left was all she left to me,
Feelin’ good was easy, Lord, when Bobby sang the blues,
And buddy, that was good enough for me.
Good enough for me and Bobby McGee.