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The Story Behind The Song: The mystifying origins of Jimi Hendrix classic 'Hey Joe'

A free environment of experimentation when making music as wild as Hendrix’s is a requirement, as it always influences and enhances creativity. The process of writing, composing, arranging and even re-making music is a constant cycle of trial-and-error. Naturally, some compositions hit the mark while others fail to do so. However, there are a few symphonies, some powerful creations that can never go wrong under any circumstances. ‘Hey Joe’ is a shining example of such a symphony.

The song gained so much popularity that people lost track of its origin and considered it to be a traditional song. While the track certainly helped the legendary guitarist Jimi Hendrix to peak the charts with what was his band’s, The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s first single release, its history goes far back. A horde of musicians before and of course after him covered the versatile classic. The song, which passed from one genre to another, appropriated its mood and colour accordingly but never lost its charm.

‘Hey Joe’ centres on a husband heading to Mexico having shot his wife due to her unfaithfulness. There has been a lot of confusion regarding the authorship of the song. Early in the days, some credited it to the American folk-musician Billy Roberts, some to Robert’s close pal, singer-songwriter Dino Valenti while some preferred to list it as a traditional song. It wasn’t until 1962 that Billy Roberts claimed its copyright. But even after that, there were several contradictory narratives about the source of the lyrics.

One cannot avoid that existing and contemporary works inspire all creative pieces. Originality and influence in proper ratios help to create significant work. But it is imperative for one to be conscious about and to appreciate the source of one’s influence. Roberts’ lyrics for ‘Hey Joe’ drew from some obvious sources which he ignored to mention. The songs ‘Baby Please Don’t Go To Town’ written by Neila Horn, ‘Hey Joe’ a 1953 song with the same name, written by Boudleaux Bryant and the 20th-century traditional ballad ‘Little Sadie’ all made an impact on Roberts and subsequently helped him to shape the soon-to-be-Hendrix-classic.

‘Little Sadie’ lyrically tends to locate the events in Thomasville, North Carolina and in Jericho which is down in South Carolina, a large rice plantation in the lowlands. It’s no coincidence that Roberts was born and brought up in South Carolina. The thematic similarity of ‘Little Sadie’ and ‘Hey Joe’ is also uncanny.

According to Roberts, the song was composed rather spontaneously while performing at clubs. However, various sources suggest that he didn’t write it alone, either Dino Valenti or the Scottish folk singer Len Partridge helped him with it. On the other hand, Pete Seeger noted that the song was nothing but an adaptation of Neila Horn’s song and offered to back her up when she decided to claim her due credit for ‘Hey Joe.’ Neila ultimately didn’t follow through with a copyright claim and, as a result, rights were restored to Roberts though the Los Angeles publishing company retained a part of the income.

Jim Hendrix’s cover was inspired by Tim Rose’s 1966 slower version of the song. Rose also reportedly asserted the lyrics to be traditional and acknowledged having learned the song from folk-singer Vince Martin. Chas Chandler, who would soon become Hendrix’s manager, heard Rose sing the song in a club and it sparked a fire within him. He incidentally came across Hendrix at the same club and decided then and there to make him cover Rose’s version of ‘Hey Joe.’

Hendrix’s version became a hit among London’s growing subculture of the swinging sixties ranking number six in the UK Singles Chart. ‘Hey Joe’ gained more significance as it was the last song performed by Hendrix at the Woodstock festival in 1969 and also the final song of the whole event which was performed on the demand of 80,000 audience members.

As with every Hendrix release, the final story of ‘Hey Joe’ is a hazy one to decipher but one thing is clear as day; Hendrix, as he did with so many other tracks, certainly made this one his own.