Me and Bobby McGee: Who Did It First Before Janis Joplin?

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Song: Me and Bobby McGee (1969)

Artist: Roger Miller

Writers: Kris Kristofferson, Fred Foster

Me and Bobby McGee has certainly made the rounds. It has been recorded or performed so many times by so many musicians to try to list them all would just invite endless corrections and offers of the “best” version. Sorry, no, not the Grateful Dead, folks, you should try Johnny Cash (live recording), but that’s just me. Besides the Dead and the Man in Black, it has been recorded by Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, Gordon Lightfoot, Jerry Lee Lewis, Waylon Jennings, Kenny Rogers, and Lee Ann Rimes. However, I think it is safe to say that the most famous recording and performance of the song was done by the late Janis Joplin. It is the rendition of the song that most people think of, and the most imitated. Many younger musicians don’t seem to know the song was ever done by anyone else. But, who did it first?

It was written by Kris Kristofferson, and Fred Foster (head of Monument Records). I lift Kristofferson out of the list above, but he has, of course, recorded the song and performed it on numerous occasions. He wasn’t the first to record it. Remember, he is a songwriter who has often written songs for other folks. In fact, he may well be one the greatest songwriters of all time. But, the first to record Me and Bobby McGee was Roger Miller.

Roger Miller released his version, the first recording of the song, in 1969. It was a fairly big hit on the Billboard Country chart, going to no. 12 on August 30, 1969. There was nothing pop about it though, and it did not make its way into the pop charts. During the 1960s, Miller was no stranger to top ten hits on the country charts, adult contemporary charts, and pop charts. He is known for such hits as King of the Road, Dang Me, England Swings, Husbands and Wives, and many others. He won numerous Grammy awards and was also an actor in movies and television.

By the way, Kenny Rogers & First Edition released their version of the song later the same year.

Despite Roger Miller’s huge success, Joplin’s version of Me and Bobby McGee has completely overshadowed his and all other versions of the song. Kristofferson himself taught Joplin the song, even tweaking some of the lyrics, but he wasn’t even aware that she had recorded the song until he heard it on the radio after she had already passed away.

One thing that is different about the Roger Miller version is that you can more easily understand the lyrics, and thus the story of the song. You will notice, however, upon close listening, the changes in the lyrics. Bobby, in the original song, was a woman but in the Joplin version, Bobby was changed to a man.

When Miller pulls his ‘harpoon’ (harmonica) out of his dirty red bandanna, he “blows sad while Bobby sings the blues.” When Joplin does the same, she “plays soft while Bobby sings the blues.” And, in Joplin’s version, “with them windshield wipers slappin’ time and Bobby clappin’ hands with mine” became “windshield wipers slappin’ time, I was holdin’ Bobby’s hand in mine.”

Janis Joplin, in all fairness to Miller, could have just sung the “la la la” part at the end of the song the whole time and infused it with more heart and grit.

The song was released posthumously on Janis Joplin’s Pearl album, by Columbia Records. The album itself was multiplatinum but Me and Bobby McGee, reaching no. 1 on March 20, 1971, was Joplin’s only top forty or top ten hit, owed to her tragically short career.

Listen to Me and Bobby McGee by Roger Miller

Listen to Me and Bobby McGee by Janis Joplin

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