Just another word?

Sarthak Kaushik | Updated on August 14, 2020

Queen of hearts: Me and Bobby McGee was Joplin’s only No 1 single   -  IMAGE COURTESY: TWITTER.COM/JANISJOPLIN

Singer-songwriter Kris Kristofferson painted freedom as a double-edged sword in an iconic number that Janis Joplin’s whisky-soaked voice immortalised

* Me and Bobby McGee was Joplin’s only number one single on the charts, though she had ruled the hearts of a generation with her sound. The song became legendary, and its chorus line — “freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose” — a bit of a rallying cry.

On Independence Day, as a global pandemic robs us of our freedom to explore the great outdoors, it would be a good idea to explore the expanses of the mind and what words threaded together can do in times such as these. And one of the first phrases to fit the moment has quite the history.

“Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose” — as Janis Joplin’s whisky-soaked and raw-powered vocal cords sang this, generation upon generation nodded their heads at the nuance; and at the genius of Joplin to mould it so beautifully into an emotion-laden classic, Me and Bobby McGee, whose iconic chorus line this is. The song was not originally Janis Joplin’s, of course. In fact, her version was discovered a day after she passed away and gifted to the world by its original creator. But more on that later.

Kris Kristofferson   -  IMAGE COURTESY: TWITTER.COM


The year was 1965. Kris Kristofferson had left the Army that year and made his way to Nashville, Tennessee. Domestic problems led to a divorce, and he got a job sweeping floors at the legendary Columbia Studios, the home of country music at that time. There he handed in his audition tape, hoping that it would reach country music legend Johnny Cash. Cash did get the tape, but added it to the large pile that he already had.

Not getting a response from Cash, Kristofferson — who, meanwhile, had moved on to being a helicopter pilot — thought of a ploy that was rather, shall we say, innovative, to get Cash’s complete attention. He landed a helicopter on Cash’s front lawn. While that did not immediately land him a record deal, his helicopter flying for an oil platform inspired him to write a song called Bobby McGee, about two drifters singing their experiences as they hitch a ride on a truck driving through the American South. There was also an intensely personal reason for the chorus line of the song. As he told Esquire magazine: “I’d lost my family to my years of failing as a songwriter. All I had were bills, child support, and grief. And I was about to get fired for not letting 24 hours go between the throttle and the bottle. It looked like I’d trashed my act. But there was something liberating about it. By not having to live up to people’s expectations, I was somehow free.”

It sang of the pain of parting as the first-person narrator and Bobby McGee visit California and decide to part ways. Interestingly, the name of the narrator was never revealed, leaving it gender neutral and leaving the vocal interpretation open to gender.


In 1970, Kristofferson finally got his debut album. Kristofferson was its name, and in it was a song called Bobby McGee. But it was not the first time the song had been sung. Doubting his singing skills and fancying himself a better songwriter than singer, Kristofferson’s lyrical legend was first sung by country singer Roger Miller in 1969. It soared to number 12 on the Country Music charts.

Kristofferson’s debut, meanwhile, did not really create ripples on the charts or on record store shelves. That was when the founder of Monument Records, the home of the album, suggested a name change. The new album name was to be Me and Bobby McGee, and success followed.

October 1970 was to see the completion of Janis Joplin’s album Pearl. Kristofferson had sung Bobby McGee to her, and the multi-talented artist Bob Neuwirth had taught her the song. Kristofferson also believed that the essence of the two characters who animated the song was so close to Joplin’s own free-spirited personality that she would be a natural choice of voice for the words. Just a few days before her death, she recorded the song. Kristofferson did not know this.

The first time he heard the song was a day after her death on October 4, 1970, from a heroin overdose. It was released to the world, and the eager eardrums of the listening public were so enamoured that they led the song all the way up the charts. It was Joplin’s only number one single on the charts, though she had ruled the hearts of a generation with her sound. Me and Bobby McGee had become legendary, and its chorus line — “freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose” — a bit of a rallying cry.

Kristofferson has described the meaning of the famed chorus line in his own way. This is what he said in an interview, “It definitely expressed the double-edged sword that freedom is. You may be free but it can be painful to be that free. But maybe at the very end, when you leave, you will be free when you’ve nothing else to lose, you know, when you’re gone.”

And though the creator of the most famous rendition of the lines may be gone, the emotion is certainly alive and well. Though the likes of the Grateful Dead, Dolly Parton and Johnny Cash have all put the words to music, it is Joplin’s lacerated, emotion-drenched effort that animates the loss of an idea.

Sarthak Kaushik   -  BUSINESS LINE


Sarthak Kaushik is an RJ at Ishq 104.8 FM, Delhi

Twitter: @radiochaos

Published on August 14, 2020

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