Hey Joe: The Mystery of a Classic

Jimi Hendrix

‘Hey Joe’ stands as a mystic piece of music history, advancing over time. It progressed across different music types to become a rock classic. Its origin story remains veiled in mystery, which adds to its enthrallment and allure. Various artists have performed this American song, said to have emerged during the eventful 1960s, in countless ways, finding a place in a wide range of musical styles.

At its essence, ‘Hey Joe’ presents a compelling story: the lyrics focus on a man who flees the consequences of his actions. And pursuing a route to Mexico after committing a serious act, where he shoots his disloyal wife. It’s a story of passion, betrayal, and the anxious departure from the quest for justice. These are all elements that have captivated and emotionally attached to audiences for many years.

The song officially became part of the musical canon when Billy Roberts listed it for copyright in the United States in 1962. However, Jimi Hendrix recorded the most famous version for his debut album, Are You Experienced? which played a crucial role in establishing its legacy as a symbol of rebellion, love, and consequence.

Although Roberts declared copyright ownership, the song carries on to generate different declarations and conflicts about its roots.

Different songwriters, including Roberts and Dino Valenti, have received recognition for this rock standard. Certain versions have identified it as a traditional folk song. Despite Roberts’ efforts, many argue that its root holds a more multilayered story. For example, Scottish folk singer Len Partridge claimed that he and Roberts worked together on the song during their performances at Edinburgh clubs in 1956.

Furthermore, it seems that Roberts drew inspiration for ‘Hey Joe’ from several sources. One of these sources was the song ‘Baby, Please Don’t Go to Town,’ written by his girlfriend Niela Horn. This song used a similar chord progression based on the circle of fifths. Additionally, in 1953, Carl Smith’s US country hit titled ‘Hey Joe!’ was written by Boudleaux Bryant. This song not only shared the title but also employed a similar “questioning” format. The early 20th-century traditional ballad ‘Little Sadie,’ which tells the story of a man fleeing after shooting his wife, also likely contributed to the song’s narrative.

Roberts likely wrote the song “Hey Joe” with someone else. He performed it many times in the 1950s and 1960s without protecting it by copyright. Later versions of the song, such as the famous one by  Jimi Hendrix, revived its popularity. Another rendition by The Byrds titled “Hey Joe (Where You Gonna Go)” contributed to its resurgence as well.

Hendrix’s versions acquired critical recognition for the distinctive rock variations he added to it, making it even more meaningful as it aided as  his closing performance at the 1969 Woodstock Festival. Remarkably, the song marked the concluding song of the entire event. The performers played it in response to an eager plea for more from the remaining 80,000 fans who had not yet left.

Regardless of its mysterious origins, ‘Hey Joe’ progressed remarkably from its original version to become the iconic masterpiece we now know. Artists from various genres were motivated by the song’s creative core. Establishing its position as a crucial symbol in the history of music.


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