Learning to be free with Janis Joplin’s ‘Me and Bobby McGee’

Welcome to Formative Jukebox, a column exploring the personal relationships people have with music. Every week, a writer will tackle a song, album, show, or musical artist and their influence on our lives. Tune in every week for a brand new essay.

I learned about Janis Joplin in the sixth grade while driving with my grandfather from his house in suburban Boston up to Maine. She was his favorite musical artist, and since I didn’t know who she was, he played me her album Pearl. He told me that much of her voice was lost on that record, that she had a difficult life and sounded less strained on some of the earlier albums. Only, I didn’t think her voice sounded strained at all. I thought that she sounded worldly, like you could hear the wealth of experience in her voice.

After the trip to Maine, I listened to my family’s copy of Pearl in my bedroom. “Me and Bobby McGee” quickly became one of my favorite songs, as that was my grandfather’s favorite song on the album. The song recounts a love affair between the singer and Bobby McGee while on a road trip through the Southern United States and California; there was a carefree aspect to the song, which I connected with.

As I grew older, the song became even more important to me, particularly as I entered high school. Janis Joplin had this strong sense of individuality that I admired and longed to emulate. My high school was extremely competitive and the stakes felt high: I felt that everyone I knew was obsessed with their grades, with where they stood in our graduating class, with their SAT scores and with whether or not their extracurricular activities made them appear well-rounded to a college admissions office. Janis seemed to me the antithesis of my uptight, suburban existence, and by my junior and senior year, I was burnt out and sick of the constant competition, of trying to be better than other people. I just wanted to be myself.

I started taking singing lessons in high school. I was extremely shy, but always tried to force myself to be in my voice teacher’s regularly scheduled singing recitals, even though they scared me. I sometimes closed my eyes when I sang and tried to make it look like I was feeling the music; in reality, I was too nervous to look at anybody. That changed for a recital at the end of my junior year: My voice teacher gave us the chance to sing a rock or pop song with backing vocals and a band. I decided to sing “Me and Bobby McGee.”

That particular concert was an exception for me. I was dynamic; I got the crowd going. My eyes were wide open. I wore this yellow chiffon skirt that fluttered when I moved. I was more comfortable performing than I ever was before.

The chorus of “Me and Bobby McGee” goes: “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose / Nothin,’ don’t mean nothin’ hon’ if it ain’t free, no, no.” That’s what I wanted. I wanted to be free to be myself. People started clapping as I sang, and yeah, I felt very free.

The next time I visited my grandfather, I recounted my victory to him and showed him a recording of my performance. Naturally, he loved that he played a part in unearthing my love for Janis.

My grandfather passed away when I was 22-years-old, the year after I graduated from college. While he was dying, my family visited him at the nursing home. He was half-conscious, but the nurse told us that we should talk to him anyway, that he could still hear us even though it didn’t seem like it. We all started recounting memories with my grandfather: Trips we’d gone on as a family, visits to their house in Massachusetts, poems he liked and anything else we could think of. I sang “Me and Bobby McGee” to him and he started to cry. It was the only thing that evoked a reaction in him.

After he passed away, I learned that the song had a larger significance for him personally. My grandfather was an engineer and worked on nuclear power plants in the 1950s and 1960s, exciting and new technology at the time. “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose” was kind of a mantra for him. In his mind, the lyrics meant that we couldn’t let fear of the unknown stand in the way of progress scientific or otherwise. I’d never thought about fear as the opposite of freedom before.

I started to listen to Janis Joplin more as part of my grieving and as I attempted to figure out the direction of my life in my early twenties. The more I listened to her music, the more I realized that my grandfather was right to draw the meaning that he had.

I also realized that fear sometimes prevented me from personal progress. I was a far cry from the girl in the yellow chiffon skirt singing “Me and Bobby McGee”: I’d long lived in anxiety, with this constant tightening in my chest. I’ve always been a worrier, but when I was away from home for the first time in college things became worse for me. I felt as if everyone around me was somehow more functional and more together than me. Everything felt high stakes to me from my grades to my weight. I wasn’t sure what my future held for me, and I lived in fear of all the things that would happen or in some cases, not happen to me. I was often upset if things didn’t work out for me exactly as I planned.

I couldn’t let this fear the unknown cripple me. If I wanted to make a positive impact on the world around me, I couldn’t be scared all of the time. I needed to be brave.

After all, there’s something wonderful about uncertainty and things not working out as planned. In the song, it’s wonderful that the singer is only temporarily in love with Bobby McGee. At the end of the affair, it’s clear that the singer still longs for him, but it’s also clear that if the singer ever found Bobby McGee again, things wouldn’t be the same outside the context of their road trip.

It was my time to be free, because as Janis sang, there is nothing left to lose. These days, I strive to live my life as deliberately as possible. It’s what both Janis Joplin and my grandfather did. And when I need to be reminded of that, I sometimes still sing “Me and Bobby McGee” under my breath.

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Image courtesy of Columbia Records.