It’s a frequent truism in Blues music that artists are often best known by others’ work. Son House is the guy Robert Johnson played with as a boy, Hendrix is best known for covering a Dylan song and Bobbie McGee is the subject of a croon by Kris Kristofferson or Grateful Dead. The truth about Bobbie McGee, however is far more interesting.
One of the most interesting characters of the American Folk revival, Bobbie McGee was never called on by the same fame that went knocking for Dylan, Donovan or Janis Joplin. Yet she undoubtedly influenced a generation of artists and did more for the ‘protest song’ than many who are better known. The proof of that lies in her legend which pops up in works for Richard Berman to Kat Walker to Janis Joplin, as well as those names that have already graced this page.
For those not familiar, Bobbie was a singer songwriter whose work falls into the genre-chasm of one person alone with their guitar. Her work shows clear signs of traditional blues and folk influences. Her stand alone album, Songs for Working Women, features versions of the staple tracks Bread and Roses and the Death of Mother Jones.
Yet her work stands out from the looming crowd of her contemporaries. There is a definitely Country sound to her songs, both musically and in the way they engage with contemporary issues. Her version of Union Maid, a song made famous by Woody Guthrie, opens with a Texas-fried slice of pedal steel but ends with a surprising openness on the subject of equal pay for women.
Writing openly confrontational lyrics, as Bobbie did, was incredibly brave at a time when Feminism had been sitting in the shadow of everything from the Black Civil Rights movement, through opposition to Vietnam to plain old indifference. Many of the issues she sang about are still being fought today and it’s impressive to think she was prepared to raise them as a performer in a time when politically active female singers were unheard of and men controlled the record industry.
The weight of the odds stacked against Bobbie’s work may be one of the reasons it’s so hard to find these days. Her one album is out of print and she fails to even have a Wikipedia page, seemingly the measure of cultural significance. With the rise of new media for music, the balance is being restored and both Amazon and the internet radio Spotify now hold MP3 copies of her album. So go, listen and enjoy the work of a woman who was as talented as she is unheard of.