Way before I ever got into country music—let alone started to think about performing it—I knew and loved a handful of country songs that I’d come across in one fashion or another. I didn’t necessarily recognize them as country songs, but I’d heard “Can the Circle Be Unbroken,” “The Wabash Cannonball” and “Tennessee Waltz,” and recognized them as great songs. I didn’t understand them the way I do now, after a decade of listening to country, reading about country and, of course, singing those particular songs, but I understood them well enough.
Another one of those songs was Kris Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobby McGee” (1969), which almost certainly I initially heard in Janis Joplin’s 1970 version, though Johnny Cash’s is the one I hear in my head. When I started getting into country in the late 2000s, I encountered any number of other great versions, including one by Kristofferson himself—which I’ve subsequently heard him perform live on two occasions. When I started teaching myself the piano in 2014, and started playing country songs, “Me and Bobby McGee” was one of the first that I tackled (ill-advisedly, perhaps, because it’s significantly more difficult than any number of older country classics).
I’ve been singing publicly since 1968, when—at age 7—I joined the men-and-boys choir at Grace Church, the Episcopal landmark on Broadway in Manhattan. Since then I’ve sung innumerable songs in my work with that choir and the one at the Cathedral of the Incarnation in Garden City, as a cast member in lots of musicals, as a member of the seminal Christmas-rock band Bah & the Humbugs and, most particularly, as a 45-year member of the Gilbert & Sullivan Light Opera Company of Long Island.
I’ve also earned a college degree which included a major in English literature, and I published a generally well-received book on the operas of Gilbert & Sullivan in 2001. In other words, I’m no stranger to the idea of breaking down a song and seeing what makes it work (or, more often than not, what makes it not work).
Since I started performing as Tennessee Walt in 2016, though, I’ve delved deeper into the art—and it is an art, not a science—of understanding a song. I’ve looked carefully at how I respond to a given song, and tried to figure out (I don’t presume to be sure that I have figured out) why the song makes me feel that way.
Partly this is in aid of my own songwriting, but it’s also essential to my own performance of other people’s songs, which I still do more often than I perform my own. If I’m going to sing “Me and Bobby McGee” with only my own piano as accompaniment, it’s important to sort out what’s going on in a song, what the crucial elements are that I have to incorporate into my performance and which I can afford to let go. A lot of what Kristofferson can do with an eight-piece, guitar-based country band, or what Joplin can do with a six-piece rock band, is simply beyond my reach (especially since I’m nowhere near as good at my instrument as they are at theirs).
One of my key steps in this undertaking is to listen to different recordings of the same song, ideally at least five or six different versions, seeing how they resemble each other and how they differ. When I hear two different versions of a song—say, Kitty Wells’ 1958 recording of Don Gibson’s “I Can’t Stop Loving You” and Ray Charles’ 1962 recording—and they both work, it’s a chance for insight into what lies at the heart of the song, what makes it what it is.
One obvious lesson from such endeavors is that, by and large, it’s the lyric that lies at the heart, not the music. Janis Joplin not only sings an arrangement that’s much different from Kristofferson’s (which must be deemed the most authoritative, even though it’s probably a collaboration between him and the other musicians, not actually orchestrated by him), but she also sings a melody that’s somewhat different, both rhythmically and in what notes she actually sings. Ray Charles’ “I Can’t Stop Loving You” borders on being a different tune than Kitty Wells’.
However, Joplin’s words are almost entirely the same as Kristofferson’s, as also are those in other recordings, such as Roger Miller’s (the original recording), Johnny Cash’s, Melissa Etheridge’s or Jennifer Love Hewitt’s. Clearly to these singers—all of them, except Hewitt, world-class artists—the lyric is the essential element of this song. The music can be reworked as they see fit, but the words are what made them want to sing the song in the first place. They’re all but sacrosanct.
Which is ironic, of course, because many people who love the song don’t really know the words.
There’s a telling scene in The Bodyguard (1992), in which bodyguard Frank Farmer (Kevin Costner) takes his client, superstar pop singer Rachel Marron (Whitney Houston), to a honkytonk for drinks and dancing. They dance, and on the jukebox is John Doe’s recording of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You” (1973).
It’s a song that Farmer, a country fan, has known for many years, and he immediately falls in with its rhythm; it’s new to Marron, but she’s a professional musician and, without even meaning to, she starts breaking down the song.
(As the whole world knows, she will subsequently decide to record it herself, and Houston’s performance will become one of the biggest hits of the 1990s. For the record, Doe’s version has the same words as Parton’s, but a much different arrangement and a somewhat different melody; Marron’s/Houston’s is even further afield musically, but likewise retains Parton’s words intact.)
“This is a kind of cowboy song, huh,” she says.
“Yeah,” he replies.
She giggles, and then outright laughs. He looks at her, defensively—she’s running down his music.
“I mean, it’s so depressing,” she says, justifying herself. “Have you listened to the words?”
He listens, as Doe goes into the second chorus, and then chuckles despite himself.
“It is kind of depressing,” he admits. “It’s one of those ‘somebody is always leaving somebody’ songs.”
The Bodyguard is an underrated film, and its script (credited to Lawrence Kasdan, though other hands doubtless pitched in, Hollywood being what it is) is particularly canny. Farmer (whose name alone brands him a country fan) is a cagey, cynical, reality-based guy who scorns the trappings of celebrity and thus scorns Marron, who is enveloped in those trappings; inside, though, she’s also a real artist who is as committed to what she does, and as good as it, as he is at what he does.
This brief scene captures something important about music, because their disparate reactions to “I Will Always Love You” are characteristic.
On Farmer’s side, he knows and loves the song, but it works on him largely subliminally—he’s been hearing it for 19 years, but has never really thought about what he’s hearing; if you asked him what the words were, he’d probably say “I will always love you” and be stuck.
On Marron’s side, she knows nothing about country and her initial response to the song is to scoff—it’s a kind of cowboy song. But she’s a singer, and Houston (an underrated actress)—and director Mick Jackson let us see the moment when she reflexively listens to the song, really hears it and realizes that she’s hearing something special. Her initial response is to laugh it off, but she’s not wired to miss the emotional content of a song, and she responds to it enough that she later sings it with all the passion she (and Houston) can muster.
I know, from the reactions of people who’ve seen my shows and come up to talk with me afterward, that country fans often don’t know the words to their favorite songs. They know what the songs are about, at least emotionally, but they often misunderstand the story in the song or get some of the words wrong. And there’s nothing wrong with that, because the emotional core of the song is the point, and that gets across.
(I’ve also had the experience of singing a song and, later, having someone tell me, “You know, I’ve never liked that song, but this is the first time I’ve really listened to the words and, you know what, it’s quite a song.” One good thing about one man and a piano, there’s not a lot else going on to distract you from the lyrics.)
In other words, to a lot of people who love “Me and Bobby McGee,” the song boils down to a tale of lost love and the words “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” When they first heard it they were dancing or driving or staring into someone’s eyes, and they couldn’t give the words their full attention, but that’s enough for them to love the song, and I don’t have any problem with that.
It’s not enough to sing the song, though. Unless you’re a scat singer, you have to sing some particular words, and usually it’s the words the songwriter has given you to sing.
This can be problematic. Right now I’m in the last stages of preparing for my online show Tennessee Walt’s ‘A Distant Country 3,’ in which I’m doing a number of songs I’ve never done before, and one of them include a single line that I find almost unsingable, a single word that’s there for a rhyme and doesn’t really make sense. Its inanity takes me out of the mood of the song, and I’m still struggling to sort that out. Hopefully I will by Saturday.
(In this situation, I’ll sometimes insert a word or even a line of my own. So far, though, I haven’t been able to think of anything that would work better that wouldn’t involve rewriting pretty much the whole verse, if not the whole song. I sympathize with the songwriter’s desperation—but I’m still having trouble with that line.)
Anyway, singing “Me and Bobby McGee” has caused me to really know these words—not only well enough to write them out from memory, but intimately, in the most literal sense of the word. I know how a singer (or at least this singer) has to breathe in order to sing this song right, where a tiny bit of rhythmic uncertainty actually improves the line, where a little more piano or a little less will make the words or music clearer and more effective. There are subtle differences between the rhythms of the first verse and second verse, and I’ve worked out what they are; one line in the second chorus is different from the first chorus, and I think I understand why. (Initially I kept stumbling over that different line; since I figured it out, I don’t think that’s happened once.)
The process of learning a song, for me, begins with a detailed effort to work it out in my head, listening to multiple versions and, often, to repeated hearings of versions I particularly like. I then sit down and figure out an arrangement that works for me, my voice and my limited pianistic skills, and then practice and practice, tweaking the arrangement as I go, until it’s ready for an audience.
But it doesn’t end there. Living with a song changes your sense of it. I’ve performed “Me and Bobby McGee” dozens of times, in my show Riding with the Outlaws and in response to audience requests, and my understanding of the song—and my performance of it—has definitely evolved along the way.
So, what do we make of this song, one of the greatest ones written by arguably our greatest living songwriter?
Well, to begin with a structural overview, this song is verse-chorus, verse-chorus, but it’s not continuous. The first verse recounts a very specific memory of a particular night, a memory that in the narrator’s mind centers on his relationship with Bobby. (I can imagine a version of this same story that was about his relationship with music, but the one we have isn’t that one.) That memory serves as the trigger for the second verse, which is a review of their whole relationship and a not-very-detailed account of its end.
When I’m performing it, I aim for a more intimate feel in the first verse, as if the singer hardly knows there’s anyone listening, and then widen out the performance for the second verse, which is broader. Kristofferson offers a signifier pointing that way: The line in the chorus that, in the first verse, goes “Feeling good was good enough,” in the second verse goes “Buddy, that was good enough”—he acknowledges the presence of a listener, in a way he hasn’t done in the first verse.
The first verse is what makes the song for me, because it captures a particular aspect of true love: the way the person you’re in love with can turn a bad day into a great one, seemingly without any effort at all. The first two lines are about as concise a portrait of despair as anyone has ever written:
Busted flat in Baton Rouge and heading for the train,
feeling near as faded as my jeans.
We aren’t told why they’re leaving town, but it doesn’t sound like they have any great destination ahead of them in, as it turns out, New Orleans. Then comes the first ray of hope, naturally from Bobby:
Bobby thumbed a diesel down just before it rained
that took us all the way to New Orleans.
All of a sudden, not only are they out of the impending rain, but they’ve got a ride to New Orleans, saving the train fare. Things are looking up … and suddenly it’s a good day after all, thanks to music but especially thanks to Bobby:
I took my harpoon out of my dirty red bandanna
and was blowing sad while Bobby sang the blues.
With them windshield wipers slapping time and Bobby clapping hands,
we finally sang up every song that driver knew.
The first chorus bubbles out of that joy. Not only are they having a good time, but they’re free and they’re together. That’s all they ask for—all that anyone can ask for, really:
Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose—
nothing ain’t worth nothing, but it’s free.
Feeling good was easy, Lord, when Bobby sang the blues.
Feeling good was good enough,
good enough for me and Bobby McGee.
This is a Kris Kristofferson song, though, which means that it’s about loneliness, not about joy. The more Kristofferson celebrates the joy of being with someone, in such songs as “Jody and the Kid” (1970) and “Loving Her Was Easier” (1971), the more you know that the song will end with the singer left alone. Even if he’s with someone, as in “For the Good Times” (1970) and “Help Me Make It Through the Night” (1970), it’s short-term and loneliness is right around the corner. The second verse starts out as an ode to closeness and intimacy, but five lines in the other shoe falls:
From the coal mines of Kentucky to the California sun,
Bobby shared the secrets of my soul,
standing right beside me, Lord, in everything I done.
Every night she kept me from the cold.
Then somewhere near Salinas I let her slip away,
looking for the home I hope she’ll find.
And, just like that, the song pivots from togetherness to loneliness, from happiness to despair. He’s back in the rain again, but this time without anyone else to lean on.
And I’d trade all my tomorrows for a single yesterday
holding Bobby’s body next to mine.
The chorus is largely the same, but the cynical-but-cheerful second line—“nothing ain’t worth nothing, but it’s free”—is replaced with a moan of despair:
Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose—
nothing left was all she left for me.
Feeling good was easy, Lord, when Bobby sang the blues.
Buddy, that was good enough,
good enough for me and Bobby McGee.
If you think about this song, absorbing the details, it tells you how to sing it. The way I sing it may not be the way you’d sing it or the way Kristofferson sings it—any more than my take on “I Can’t Stop Loving You” aligns with either Wells’ or Charles’—but it’s pretty much the only way I can sing it, because the song speaks to me in this particular way.
My interpretation of it is, crucially, funny in a certain kind of way. That’s true of most of Kristofferson’s songs, and it’s surprising in someone whose work focuses on loneliness and is, at bottom, extremely sad.
Like all of Kristofferson’s narrators, however, the unnamed “Me” is intelligent and self-aware, and has a dark, sardonic sense of humor. The rueful wordplay of “nothing left was all she left for me” reflects the sting of a wit that is, more often than not, directed at his own follies. Kristofferson’s persona is that of a man who refuses to hide his erudition under a bushel, who is always the smartest man in the room—just not quite smart enough to know better.
At his best, Kristofferson’s songwriting combines the lacerating candor of Hank Williams with the bold inventiveness, caustic wit and antic humor of Bob Dylan. Williams was his first and formative influence, but it was Dylan who (as he did with almost every other songwriter active in the 1960s, from John Lennon and Paul McCartney to Brian Wilson, Paul Simon and Stephen Sondheim) showed him new visions of what a songwriter could be.
“Me and Bobby McGee” would be almost any songwriter’s greatest creation, and it may be Kristofferson’s as well—but it may not be, because he’s created so many unforgettable songs. I’m thinking of doing an all-Kristofferson show in 2022, and the idea of spending a year immersed in his work is both scary and exhilarating.
Whether I do that show or not, I’m going to keep singing “Me and Bobby McGee,” and I expect that my take on it will continue to evolve, deepening and refining itself with the passage of time. Great works of art do that.