Hey Joe. Hey Dig!

   Photograph: Cine Text/Allstar/Sportsphoto Ltd./Allstar
What do Nick Cave, Cher, Eddie Murphy, and the The London Symphony Orchestra have in common? They have all covered “Hey Joe.”

“Hey Joe” – Jimi Hendrix Version
[1st verse (Oo – backing vocals on each line)]
Hey Joe, where you goin’ with that gun in your hand?
Hey Joe, I said where you goin’ with that gun in your hand?
Alright. I’m goin down to shoot my old lady,
you know I caught her messin’ ’round with another man.
Yeah,! I’m goin’ down to shoot my old lady,
you know I caught her messin’ ’round with another man.
Huh! And that ain’t too cool.
[2nd verse (Ah – backing vocal on each line)]
Uh, hey Joe, I heard you shot your woman down,
you shot her down.
Uh, hey Joe, I heard you shot your old lady down,
you shot her down to the ground. Yeah!
Yes, I did, I shot her,
you know I caught her messin’ ’round,
messin’ ’round town.
Uh, yes I did, I shot her
you know I caught my old lady messin’ ’round town.
And I gave her the gun and I shot her!
(Ah! Hey Joe)
Shoot her one more time again, baby!
(Hey Joe!)
Ah, dig it!
Ah! Ah!
(Joe where you gonna go?)
Oh, alright.
[3rd verse]
Hey Joe, said now,
uh, where you gonna run to now, where you gonna run to?
(where you gonna go?)
Hey Joe, I said,
where you goin’ to run
to now, where you, where you gonna go?
Well, dig it!
I’m goin’ way down south, way down south,
way down south to Mexico way! Alright!
I’m goin’ way down south,
(Hey, Joe)
way down where I can be free!
(where you gonna…)
Ain’t no one gonna find me babe!
Ain’t no hangman gonna,
(Hey, Joe)
he ain’t gonna put a rope around me!
(Joe where you gonna..)
You better believe it right now!
I gotta go now!
Hey, hey, hey Joe,
(Hey Joe)
you better run on down!
(where you gonna…)
Goodbye everybody. Ow!
Hey, hey Joe, what’d I say,
run on down.
(where you gonna go?)
I thought I’d revisit this rock ‘n’ roll mainstay for MBM, considering I reference the song often when venturing to explain murder ballads to a newbie. I choose this song because most likely, whomever I’m speaking to, has heard it.
“Hey Joe” is the short story of a man who shoots his woman (she was cheating, ‘natch) and then he flees down Mexico way. The story is plain and simple and seems secondary to the guitar-ing. Important enough to note, is the  two person point of view of the storyteller, the singer is both narrator and perpetrator. A device used maybe not as often as a straightforward narrator or confessional.
I’m a little nervous to admit this but, I really don’t like this song very much. I get bored. There is no denying that Hendrix’s version is cool, it just doesn’t feel rich lyrically. The story seems to be an afterthought a light layer placed on top of the instrumentals, a gauze floating just above a river. The words don’t hurt as much as other murder ballads. And for what it lacks in story it doesn’t take me over atmospherically with the music. I zone out pretty easily and the only thing to jar me out of this whatever else I’ve started doing is, “Hey Joe!” and tepid lyrics about shooting his woman. After the song is done I realize that I’ve spent most of the time hearing the ethereal background vocals, quite possibly because that is the only woman’s perspective in the song, or because it is pretty, or high in the mix. Joe’s getaway is a bit more interesting but by that time I’m like, “Just go already! Run! What are you sitting here talking about it for?!”It’s like murder ballad light. Which makes it annoying rather than moving. (Which by the way is how I feel about Neil Young’s “Down By the River” also.)
For the story itself, I expected to uncover a history similar to most murder ballads–meaning, a fairly traceable ancestry back to a specific event, certain elements changed as the story was passed down, possibly shipped from overseas and then up from the southern US to all parts.  And that is mostly true. In fact, according to Wikipedia, the song shares similar themes to 1930’s “Bad Lee Brown” that begat “Little Sadie” which begat a whole lot of others.  (Check out Pat’s post about these songs right here on this very blog.) I see the connections but they seem surface.

Honestly, the Wikipedia article for “Hey Joe” appears to have all the information and background you need to know, like the first copywright was Billy Roberts, first recording was The Leaves, and the music was probably ripped (or riffed) off from Neila Miller’s, “Baby Don’t Go Downtown” (more on that later).

So why then if I don’t love the song, am I submitting you to this post? Well, what I did find surprising was that there are A BAJILLION covers of “Hey Joe”.  Yes folks, from the Allman Brothers to ZZ Top the list is extensive. And you can find most of them here at a site that was super entertaining and informative http://heyjoeversions.wordpress.com/hey-joe-versions/ 

Many covers are inspired from the Hendrix version and they don’t change much (in terms of story). So I must be in the minority for not loving it. Or it is easily accessible as a murder song. Or it is easy to cover. Maybe there’s a take that will speak to me more after I listen to a few and if not, there is a story behind the song’s creation that I do find intriguing. I’ll share that with you about mid-post. For now let us peruse some of the myriad versions and covers.

Billy Roberts (1962)
The original version according to copyright laws. He keeps it moving along and has nice emotion to his voice. I don’t really ever need to listen to this one again though.The Leaves  (1965) – These guys are like the angrier Monkees. This particular video reminds me a bit of the Louvin Brothers smiley performance of “Knoxville Girl” but not as creepy. The Leaves are putting some angry grit on the voices and guitars. Ok.

The Byrds (1966) – More Cowbell! More Gun Specs! God that’s … fun!? I suppose it takes some of the heat off of the singer to be the narrator and not the murderer. You can just jam and party on because you just talked to the guy, you didn’t do it. More Tambourine!

Jimi Hendrix and the Experience (1966). To me, the classic. He plays with his face and teeth. If I were looking at it as performance art I may take that as a nod to our animal instincts, our need to devour and destroy that which poses a threat. Jimi Hendrix is just so damn cool that its nice to groove in his coolness.

An Origin Story

Neila Miller: Here is one of three origin stories of the song, the one that hooked me. Neila Miller is a singer songwriter that ran in the same circles as Billy Roberts. They dated, she played Billy a song and it went a little something like this  …

And boy howdy does it sound like “Hey Joe.” It also has the double POV or call-and-response aspect to it. I’m sure this is well documented in some circles, but not mine. More a problem than it actually being the same song or the fact that she and Billy shared chords after playing together is that she isn’t listed as a creator on the song, when it is so documented that this might be a part of its origin. I just didn’t know this was part of the song history and I liked discovering it. Maybe you will too, and maybe Neila will get some notice and sell some more of her songs. You can find the album here.

Her song is a different story, in the vein of a cautionary tale, about a woman who is treated poorly by her man and wants to go downtown to drink a little, flirt a little, and get a little something off her chest. This of course means she is likely to get murdered. The narrator says, “don’t go down there because your man won’t be there to protect you”. But because there are words from a woman (singer and character within the song) about a women’s experience (the protagonist), that ownership of the words gives it a different spin than, hey woman don’t do that or I’ll leave you / shoot you / what have you. It is a filled out scenario commenting on something our culture still has a hard time with, blaming the victim. Blaming the victim for going out and drinking rather than the malicious acts of people who victimize.

Let’s Do Some More Exploration, Shall We? 

Cher: Ummm, you guys!!!! Did you know Cher did this?!  Her belt (singing style not costume) is surprisingly effective and moving… disturbing. You can sort of imagine Cher confronting Joe rather than just being a narrator. It might be my favorite straight up cover.
London Symphony Orchestra: A slow moving beauty. A bit cheeky. I’m in.
Patti Smith: For those of you who would like a little spoken word with your Joe. Totally worth it to hear the preamble.
Lets take a break from the straight-forward covers and try Frank Zappa’s “Flower Punk” for a palette cleanse. No longer a murder ballad, but it is relevant and deliciously weird and awesome.

And now back to clear cut covers but… for a mariachi version try, Willy Deville

Eddie Murphy Put a murder ballad in yer butt! How could I not include Eddie Murphy’s version? It is no “Boogie in Your Butt”, but I’d say it’s worth waiting through the commercial that begins the clip.
Photo of album is from Spotify.
If you are listening to Spotify outside of the US you can hear the song.
Charlotte Gainsbourg: If you feel like making love to “Hey Joe” or just being whispered to, try this one. Nice bass.

And just for good measure because it tickled me… two guys with my last name! (no relation) Eddy Poole & Ben Poole. Ben wins for longest version.
In Conclusion – Find Your Joe

There isn’t necessarily a full account of what happened with Joe and his woman or his travels. Even within a range of between like 3-12 minutes we still don’t get all the details. Really! This is ALL the story we get? You shot her, you run to Mexico? In his defense he was probably in a hurry.

You can want more from “Hey Joe” but it did its job. It sings the story of a murder. It has clearly stood the test of well, covers. Seems to point out just how compelling these stories of death by malice are to tell. What we humans are grappling with is varied, but a never ending well of curiosity to the gruesome seems to be a large part of our condition.

I hope if nothing else you have found a version of “Hey Joe” that made you feel something. And if not, there are hundreds more for us all to dig around in and explore.

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