The first time I heard Jimi Hendrix’s recording of “Hey Joe” was in English class at Shelter Rock Junior High School, an institute of higher learning where students dissected both frogs and music, thankfully in different classes. I mean, let’s be honest, dissecting animals and song in the same class would only be suitable for an episode of Showtime’s Dexter, and not Shelter Rock JHS.
When a progressive English teacher asked students to bring in some LPs so we could analyze and discuss song lyrics, a mate brought in the North American release of The Jimi Hendrix Experience LP, Are You Experienced (1967). The class then zeroed in on the track “Hey Joe.” (The UK version of the LP did not contain the track as it had been issued earlier as a single.) The entire class was immediately floored both by the LP and the song. I mean, honestly, how could one not be?
Although “Hey Joe” is mostly associated with Hendrix, the song was written in 1962 by Billy Roberts, a military school dropout who yearned to be a full time musician and songwriter. Roberts had a modicum of success, first in the folk scene of New York’s Greenwich Village and then later on the west coast.
“Hey Joe” has been recorded by hundreds of different artists, a diverse and eclectic group of musicians starting with The Leaves in 1965, pre-dating the Hendrix recording by less than a year.
Other covers range from a truly marvelous arrangement by jazz pianist Brad Mehldau (2012), a sampled version by rap artist Fat Joe (2009), and two recordings by Robert Plant, one with his pre-Led Zep group Band of Joy and another solo version on his 2002 Dreamland LP. Wilson Pickett’s cover (1969) featured a young, highly-regarded session guitarist by the name of Duane Allman. Perhaps the weirdest cover is a toss-up between Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds (1986) and Helge and the Firef*ckers (1999); Helge Schneider is a German comedian and multi-instrumentalist who does parody in the vein of “Weird” Al Yankovic.
Otis Taylor has recorded the song with three different arrangements on his LP Hey Joe Opus | Red Meat, recently re-released as a high-res reissue on PS Audio’s own Octave Records.
In comparison, the Beatles’ “Yesterday” has over 1,600 recorded cover versions, though really, how many different arrangements can be executed with a ballad like “Yesterday”? Conversely, covers on “Hey Joe” run the gamut from folk, folk rock, hard rock, R&B, jazz, blues to the downright frightening, as evidenced by Mr. Schneider’s cover.
Most people think Jimi Hendrix closed his set at the famed Woodstock Festival in 1969 with “The Star Spangled Banner.” In reality, the encore to Hendrix’s set was “Hey Joe,” played to an extremely sparse crowd as most attendees had already departed the festival grounds.
The lyrics to “Hey Joe” are hardly PC in any era, though modern-day mores may discourage artists from recording the track as it touches on a trio of no-nos: vigilantism, domestic violence and infidelity. The protagonist in the song is on the lam to Mexico after shooting “his old lady,” who he caught “messin’ round with another man.” Love indeed does come in many flavors!
The Leaves actually recorded “Hey Joe” three times, with their final effort the only recorded version to crack the U.S. Top 40. This arrangement added some fuzz tone guitar and a bridge giving the track a little more commercial appeal. Reflecting on the recording, Jim Pons, bass player for The Leaves, The Turtles and later the Mothers of Invention, noted, “it was a big departure from the song’s original folk roots, though purists thought it wasn’t true to the character of the song.”
The covers of “Hey Joe” have been eclectic and wide ranging. Check out the abridged list below:
The Leaves (1965)
The Byrds (1966)
Jimi Hendrix (1966 U.K./1967 U.S.)
Johnny Hallyday (1967)
Deep Purple (1968)
Johnny Rivers (1968)
Wilson Pickett (1969)
Patti Smith (1974)
Roy Buchanan (1974)
Ten Years After (1979)
Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds (1986)
Eddie Murphy (1993)
Otis Taylor (1996, 2008, 2015)
Helge & The Firef*ckers (1999)
Robert Plant (2002)
Brad Mehldau (2012)
Charlotte Gainsbourg (2013)
Adding to the song’s enormous history and cult bonafides, during a 2019 “Thank Jimi” festival in Wroclaw, Poland, 7,423 guitarists simultaneously played “Hey Joe” in a public square, breaking the record set at the previous year’s festival by 12.
Of course, given the song’s simplistic chord progressions, there isn’t a garage band anywhere that hasn’t performed “Hey Joe.” Even I covered the track, well, kind of, sort of. At my younger brother’s bachelor party, we did away with the traditional debauchery associated with such celebratory occasions. Instead, a dozen male friends and family dined in a private room in a really great Italian restaurant in Washington, DC. My older brother and I were picking up the tab and made the mistake of delegating wine responsibilities to a friend of our marrying brother, an oenophile with very good but extremely expensive taste. Do vintage Brunellos and Barolos mean anything to you?
When we exited the restaurant, much to my delight, a busker was performing outside and had just hit the opening notes to “Hey Joe,” the sound of his guitar and amp resonating through the streets of a quiet DC neighborhood. In my festive – okay, truth be told – inebriated state, I immediately pounced and offered the guy 20 bucks if I could do the singing. (I mean what’s $20 when you just spent hundreds on some good wine.) I’m quite certain I botched the lyrics, with my slurred delivery no doubt providing added effect. My cousin said, “wow, you sounded really, really good,” a very nice compliment, but truth be told his judgement was as impaired as mine.
“Hey Joe,” first recorded 55 years ago has aged just like a fine wine, with an endless range of winemakers adding their own personal touch to the varietal.
So, what’s your favorite cover? Hendrix is certainly the odds-on favorite, but as an alternative the aforementioned Brad Mehldau Jazz cover is exquisitely arranged, recorded and produced. I reached out to Mehldau and he responded:
“I fell in love with Hendrix’s version the first time I heard it on Are You Experienced as a teen. I only found out years later that it was written by Billy Roberts. The song has a few things going on at once: There’s this repeating C-G-D-A-E cyclical harmony that weaves through the whole thing, mysteriously (a lot like the trippy refrain in Deep Purple’s ‘Hush’ – which came first actually?) [Billy Roberts – Ed.] Then there’s a trance aspect of the E note that could be played through all those chords, like a drone, and finally, most importantly, for me the song is all about the blues – it’s a blues that’s not a blues in form but in feeling. I’ve found a lot of places I can go with it – trance, straight up blues, what have you. I play it a lot solo as well.
The other thing that has made me continue to play it since I recorded it is that I see it as an anti-gun-violence song. ‘Hey Joe – where you goin’ with that gun in your hand?’ It’s a question he’s asking everyone, and when I play the song now, I think about the victims of gun violence, and channel some of that rage and sadness into what I’m playing.”
Header image of Jimi Hendrix courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Steve Banks.