‘Hey Joe’ did not begin or end with Jimi Hendrix.
The legend of ‘Hey Joe’ has a fascinating history of who exactly wrote it (heated debates), what the original lyrics were about (altered several times), having over 1,000 different recordings of it made (perhaps the most recorded song in history) and the people who recorded it (many of whom you will not believe). Also it may be the only song that over 7,000 guitarists played at one time (Guinness made this fact official). Such is ‘The Legend of ‘Hey Joe’ and there’s no other song quite like it.
Who really wrote ‘Hey Joe’?
Folk musician Billy Roberts registered it for copyright in 1962, but the real answer is a lot more complicated than that. Start with an early 20th century folk ballad called ‘Little Sadie’ which is about a man on the run after he killed his wife. Then there was ‘Baby, Please Don’t Go To Town’ written by Roberts girlfriend at the time, folksinger Niela Horn Miller. Roberts changed some of the lyrics Miller wrote when he performed ‘Hey Joe’ at clubs in the late 1950s and early 1960s before copyrighting it. Pete Seeger offered to testify for Miller so she could get part of the credit and royalties for the song, but that didn’t happen. Len Patridge, a Scottish folksinger, said he helped write the song with Roberts when they both performed in Edinburgh clubs circa 1956. Dino Valenti claimed authorship on 2 record pressings. In the end, Roberts copyright held up against all the other claims filed for ‘Hey Joe’.
Altered lyrics and Patti Smith
One version had Joe killing his woman. Another version had Joe happening upon his woman in bed with another man and he killed them both. Joe was asked about “the gun in your hand” but that became “money in your hand” in a different recording. The most extreme version belonged to Patti Smith who, “with her fiercely literate punk rock” music, fused “a salacious monologue” about the controversial Patty Hearst kidnapping and Hearst subsequently becoming a part of the radical Symbionese Liberation Army with the traditional ‘Hey Joe’ lyric line. Smith asked of the heiress “you know what your daddy said? He said “well, sixty days ago she was such a lovely child, now here she is with a gun in her hand.” Right after that Smith sings “hey Joe, where you going with that gun in your hand?”
Tim Rose, Jimi Hendrix and The Breakaways
Folk rock singer Tim Rose recorded a slow version of ‘Hey Joe’ in 1966. Chas Chandler, former bassist with The Animals was now into management and saw Tim Rose perform his version at the Café Wha?. Chandler was looking for someone to do a rock version of ‘Hey Joe’. He had discovered Jimi Hendrix and decided to take him back to England where they assembled the rest of the Experience. The Hendrix version was released in December of 1966. On the original studio recording, the group had backing vocals by the Breakaways. This was one of the few times Hendrix tracks had female backing vocals. Hendrix omitted the first verse where Joe buys the gun. Rolling Stone magazine named it No. 201 on their 500 Greatest Songs of All Time list. In 2000 it was named the 13th greatest cover version by Total Guitar magazine. And in 2009, it was named the 22nd greatest cover version of all time by VH1. ‘Hey Joe’ was the last song Hendrix performed at Woodstock.
The Leaves, Frank Zappa and Forrest Gump
Over 1,000 different versions of ‘Hey Joe’ have been recorded, as of the current count, with 3 different versions making the charts. In 1966 The Leaves hit the Top 40 with a high-energy interpretation. In 1967, Cher broke into the Top 100 with an arrangement that an AllMusic commented on as being “clearly the wrong material for this great singer.” Wilson Pickett’s recording made #59 in 1969 and featured a guitar player on it named Duane Allman. Johnny Hallyday, known as the “French Elvis Presley” covered the song in French in 1966. Marmalade recorded it because they needed a flip side to their single ‘Lovin’ Things’. Frank Zappa recorded a parody in 1968 entitled ‘Flower Punk’ on his LP ‘We’re Only In It For The Money’ and his lyrics included “Hey punk, where you goin’ with that flower in your hand? / Well, I’m going’ up to Frisco to join a psychedelic band.” And the Hendrix version was on the soundtrack of Forrest Gump in the movie, where Forrest gets in a fight at a Black Panthers meeting.
7,411 Guitarists Can’t Be Wrong
In the town square of Wroclaw, Poland, on May 1, 2006, a Guinness record was broken when 1,572 guitarists played ‘Hey Joe’ simultaneously. Every successive year on May 1, Wroclaw celebrates the Thanks Jimi Festival and at the 17th celebration in 2019, a new Guinness record was set at 7,411. What will May 1, 2022 bring? We’ll have to wait and see about that.