Saturday, May 14, 2016

Me & Bobby (or Bobbi?) McGee & Janis Joplin & P!nk & Kris Kristofferson & You

Janis Joplin

Now and then, you hear a song--and it just grabs you. "Me and Bobby McGee" is such a song for many of us. We've all heard lots of covers over the years, from Roger Miller (1969) to Grace Askew (2013). Why does this particular song spark so much interest? How is it that we prefer some versions of the "same" song over others?

"When you hear a great song, you can think of where you were when you first heard it, the sounds, the smells. It takes the emotions of a moment and holds it for years to come. It transcends time. A great song has all the key elements — melody; emotion; a strong statement that becomes part of the lexicon; and great production."--Jay-Z, Rolling Stone

Recently, I heard P!nk's (2003) cover--and it transported me back in time. I enjoyed comparing P!nk's voice and attitude with Janis Joplin's iconic expression from over 30 years prior.

Alecia Beth "Pink" Moore

The experience of reveling in the renditions of this particular story got me wondering--how it is that certain songs stick with us? Some songs grab and hold. How does that work? What makes a song stick with you over time? How does a piece music grab us when another leaves us cold? How does it work for you?
  • Do you respond to the lyrics? Perhaps you are a cognitive learner and you tend to experience the world intellectually--or at least, in your mind. 
  • Or, is your response more beat-driven? In that case, you may be a kinetic learner and your favorite songs are those which make you want to dance. 
  • Perhaps you hear the music and the accompaniment and your response is mostly about the harmony. This preference fits the profile of an auditory learner.
In truth we are all use a mix of these learning styles. Educators will often deliberately employ cognitive, kinetic, and auditory methods to engage students inside of their comfort zones. Perhaps the most successful musicians do the same, attempting to reach their audience with a variety of methods.

But when it comes to music appreciation, learning style is just one dimension to consider. Another: Personality type.
  • When you hear a song that grabs you, do you wish you had written it? Does it connect to your personal history? If so, you might be an Introvert (in the sense of Jungian psychology) 
  • Or do you sing along and imagine performing the song yourself? When responding to the song, do you add your own vocal stylings? In this case you may be more of an Extrovert
Kris Kristofferson

The lesson is that the best music offers a combination of features, the mix of which appeals to cognitive, kinetic, and auditory learners and both introverts and extroverts. I believe the most memorable songs are those that somehow engage me on all of these many levels.
"Think of 'Bohemian Rhapsody,' by Queen. That song had everything — different melodies, opera, R&B, rock — and it explored all of those different genres in an authentic way, where it felt natural." --Jay-Z, Rolling Stone

How does music appreciation work for me?
  • I am primarily a cognitive learner with a mild propensity for extroversion. When listening to music, I often pay close attention to the lyrics. This explains my enduring fascination with Elvis Costello, one of the best lyricists ever. His voice could be described as an acquired taste.
  • I know others who love to dance and sure enough, they tend to prefer songs that have a good beat. Often, they have no idea what the song is "about." They are not nearly as interested in the story as they are in the beat. For me the beat is the icing, not the cake.
  • It was a surprise to me when I learned that most songwriters write the music first and then fill in the lyric as an afterthought. That process never would have occurred to me. I thought everyone set lyrics to music, not the other way around.
We appreciate music in different ways. Successful singers and songwriters know that and they use that information when they cast their creative efforts out to the listening audience. Humans are storytellers. We have an innate need to tell and listen to stories. Musicians are our troubadours.

All of this talk of storytelling and music appreciation brings us back full circle to the iconic song we are examining today. "Me and Bobby McGee" is a song that has endured because it:

  • tells a compelling, human story
  • tells that story in a memorable and easily absorbed manner
  • attracts and holds the attention of a wide range of learning styles and personality types.

Let's look at a few different renditions of this classic song and see what jumps out. Since the lyric and melody are essentially the same in all the versions, the popularity of any version must depend on something beyond those factors that are common.

Janis Lyn Joplin was an American singer-songwriter who first rose to fame in the late 1960s as the lead singer of the psychedelic/acid rock band Big Brother and the Holding Company, and later as a solo artist with her own backing groups, The Kozmic Blues Band and The Full Tilt Boogie Band." Janis was born on January 19, 1943 at Port Arthur, TX and she died of an apparent overdose on October 4, 1970 in Hollywood, CA.

I love the gritty and desperate edge on her voice in her rendition of this song. It is so sad that she did not live to see her song, recorded just before her death, rise to Number One in the charts. In fact Janis Joplin's version of Me and Bobby McGee is her only song in the Rolling Stone list of 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, and the only version of the song to make the list.

Alecia Beth "Pink" Moore (born September 8, 1979) (stylized as P!nk) is an American singer and songwriter. I enjoyed comparing P!nk's voice and attitude with Janis Joplin's iconic expression.

Dolly Parton gives it a go. Her voice is sweet and the backing vocals and instrumental accompaniment are polished--too polished for my liking. The gritty, earthiness of Janis Joplin's version connects on a more visceral level.

Johnny Cash & Willie Nelson & and Kris Kristofferson bring three quite different styles of performance to the effort. They play off each other nicely.

I enjoyed this version immensely. As an aging Country Music Hall of Famer, Kris Kristofferson sings the song he wrote in the late 1960. In this version, recorded live, Kristofferson plays his own accompaniment (harmonica and guitar) and dials down the vocals in a way that suits his range and lets the listener focus on the story. Near the end of the performance, he gives a nod to the singer who made his song famous when he sings,
"Feeling good was good enough for me (and Janis!),
good enough for me and Bobby McGee."
Is feeling good good enough for you? You can learn a lot more about Kris Kristofferson and his famous song at this link.

Bottom line for me is simple: to my mind, Janis Joplin owns this song. When I hear any rendition of this classic song, I can't help but mentally picture

Janis Joplin 

on a Harley 

at Woodstock.

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