Most people know of the song “Hey Joe” because it was the first single released by The Jimi Hendrix Experience. But the song is like Robert Johnson’s “Crosscord”: it’s been performed by just about everyone. And to be honest, I’m not fond of most of the versions of the song. It is at base, a folk song and dressing it up really distracts from its power.
Although the song is credited as being written by the folk singer-songwriter Billy Roberts, many people would beg to differ. Some, like Len Partridge, claim they helped write it. Others, like Tim Rose, claim it is a traditional song. I don’t doubt that various people helped out with the song; that tends to be the way writing works among performing musicians. And the truth is that our copyright system absolutely doesn’t deal with issues like that. Other than the music-lyrics divide, all writers are treated equally. In that case, I suspect Roberts deserves sole credit. As for the traditional claim, that’s just nonsense. Certainly the story in the song is classic, dating back a hundred years. But otherwise, it is an original composition.
Most likely, the first recorded version of the song was by the Los Angeles band The Leaves. I really don’t like it, but it is what it is. One interesting aspect of it is that the two narrative parts are performed by two different singers. But the arrangement is so intense and frenetic that the soul of the song is destroyed:
A much better Los Angeles band, Arthur Lee’s Love picked up the song. Their version is probably the most important because it inspired so many other people to do it. Some of the more notable (but not necessarily good) versions were done by The Byrds, Cher, and Patti Smith much later. But here is Love’s version which I still really like, although not because it captures the essence of the song. It’s just that Love was great.
It was about this time that Tim Rose released his slow version—the first one that really seems to capture the feeling of the song:
It was because of Rose’s version of the song that Hendrix came to do it. It’s quite a good version, and following from Rose, it does get the feeling right. But it isn’t one of my favorite Hendrix tunes.
On the third Mothers of Invention album, Frank Zappa parodied the song as, “Hey punk where’re you going with that flower in your Hand? Well I’m going up to Frisco to join a psychedelic band.” I really liked Zappa, but there was never anything very nice about his humor. He exhibited total derision for popular music. But I still feel that in terms of technical prowess, he was probably the greatest rock guitarist ever. This is a fun little song:
But in 1975, over a decade after writing the song, Billy Roberts released his own acoustic version of the song. I think it is the best version that I have heard. But it very much hearkens back to Tim Rose’s version. But Rose’s version might follow Roberts’ earlier version. There is apparently a live version of the song Roberts recorded back in 1961. That would be interesting to hear. But I doubt it is as beautiful as this version:
Wikipedia lists over eighty different recorded versions of the song, and I don’t doubt there are far more than that. It’s kind of weird, because most people who perform it don’t especially use it to much advantage. But it is a fabulous song.