Janis Joplin was known for being one of the most powerful singers the sixties had to offer. Able to pull soul from her lungs as nobody else could, Joplin’s weighty wail became her trademark. But that doesn’t mean she wasn’t able to bring a touching vulnerable delicacy to things when required. One perfect example of Joplin’s ability to move between the two states of emotion is this rarely heard demo of ‘Me and Bobby McGee’.
Originally written by Kris Kristofferson but performed by a number of artists, ‘Me and Bobby McGee’ became an anthem for the sixties. With a brand new decade ahead and a long road travelled between 1959 and 1969, the song about two drifting friends who are reflecting on their lives but must eventually part ways landed rather heavily on the free-loving generation. With Joplin singing it, the poignancy of the song is even more prominent.
Following her tragic death on October 4th, 1970 the recording sessions that would make up her album Pearl became treasured items. Many of the sessions, including the one below, took place just a few months before her death. With the death of the decade, the world had to also endure the death of the embodiment of the counter-culture spirit—Janis Joplin. Her cover of ‘Me and Bobby McGee was posthumously released and went to number one as song and artist seemed to be so intrinsically linked.
This session, recorded on 28th July 1970 captures Joplin in the middle of the Pearl sessions and clearly in the groove as she opts to strum out the cover. Not nearly as gifted with a guitar as she was singing, to be playing the guitar while recording her vocal for the song, it’s a stunning reminder of her talent. To be able to layer a vocal performance with such equal tenderness and tenacity while playing an instrument your less comfortable with is really something.
“Not that I play that great, I should still be able to hear it, you know what I mean?” says Joplin as she confers with the mixing desk, readying herself to perform an early version of her cover. “It’s too loud,” she says when they finally connect the guitar track to her headphones. As she then hears her voice on tape for the seemingly the first time in a while, she says “Do you think I will get my Texas accent back?” Having spent so long on the West Coast, the Lone Star state’s drawl had begun to wane. “Did I always sound like this? I hear myself on tape and I just think ‘Oh God!'”
It’s a touching reminder of the person behind the talent. But the real show is about to come as Joplin approaches the mic and begins to sing the song that would help define her as a musical powerhouse. Though she’s never afraid to put some forceful wind behind her lyrics, and she’s a proverbial tsunami when she does, but it’s the softer moments that feel more poignant here.
If you’ve never had the pleasure of making your way through the Pearl sessions we strongly suggest you do. Not only will you hear snippets of songs in new ways like below, or here classic no hold barred singing like below but you’ll also get glimpses of the artist and the person behind the icon.