|Little known alternative fact:|
The CIA actually changed the lyrics of a song called "Hey Lee" to "Hey Joe."
That's how most people recognize the song, about a gun-toting guy who's telling a friend he's about to shoot his woman who's recently been seen messing around with another man. Later the cuckholded Joe informs his friend that he indeed shot her and is now about to flee to Mexico.
Guns don't kill people. Jealous maniacs kill people. Often with guns.
But before Hendrix brought new levels of popularity to "Hey Joe," the song had quite a history, jumping from the world of the folkies to the realm of the young, loud and snotty realm of the first-generation garage rockers.
Johnny Cash fans may recognize the basic plot similarities of "Hey Joe" and Cash's "Cocaine Blues," which itself was a black-humor rewrite of the old murder ballad "Little Sadie."
Though some mistakenly have said "Hey Joe" itself is a traditional folk song, and others have claimed a role in writing it, it actually was a folkie from California named Billy Roberts who was the first to sing the basic "Hey Joe" that we know and love and the first to copyright the song in 1962.
But some say Roberts' song was a re-write of his old girlfriend, Niela Miller's song, "Baby Please Don't Go to Town." Miller herself said this in 2004 in a response to a post on a blog dedicated to different versions of "Hey Joe."
Miller said Roberts was her boyfriend for a brief time in the late 1950s. "I was a songwriter and had written a song called 'Baby Please Don’t Go To Town,'" she wrote. "It is copyrighted. He stole it from me, kept the melody and put different words to it. thereby turning it into `Hey Joe.'"
Here's Niela's song
By the mid '60s, "Hey Joe" was bouncing around the Los Angeles rock 'n' roll world. The bridge between the folkies and the rockers probably was Dino Valenti, aka Chet Powers, who's probably best known for being a singer in Quicksilver Messenger Service and the undisputed writer of the peace-and-love classic "Get Together." Valenti's name appears in songwriting credits on many versions of "Hey Joe."
The Leaves recorded the first rock version of "Hey Joe," taking it to the garage in 1965.
And this sparked a whole mess of covers by bands like Love, The Standells. The Music Machine, The Shadows of Knight, The Surfaris. The biggest band before Hendrix to record "Hey Joe" was The Byrds with vocals by David Crosby. According to Roger McQuinn in the 1996 CD release of The Byrd's third album, Fifth Dimension:
The reason Crosby did lead vocal on "Hey Joe" was because it was his song. He didn't write it but he was responsible for finding it. He'd wanted to do it for years but we would never let him. Then both Love and the Leaves had a minor hit with it and David got so angry that we had to let him do it.
In 1969, Wilson Pickett turned it wicked, obviously influenced by the Hendrix version. (That's Duane Allman on guitar here)
Patti Smith also took to Hendrix's slower version, but turned it into an ode to Tania in 1974 on the flip side of her first single, "Piss Factory."
Nick Cave kept Joe alive, covering the song in his 1986 album Kicking Against the Pricks. In the version below, from an episode of Night Music in 1990, with a band including jazz greats Charlie Haden (bass) and Toots Thielemans (harmoinica).
Around the same time, Dead Moon returned it to its Leaves-era urgency
But perhaps it was Frank Zappa's Mothers of Invention who had the most fun with the song, twisting it into a biting hippie spoof on their third album, We're Only In It For the Money.
(This post barely scratches the surface of "Hey Joe" covers. So before you start peppering me with "What about the _____ version???" check out this list of covers.)
For more deep dives into songs, check out The Stephen W. Terrell Web Log Songbook