Hippydom’s high holy day, August 15, marks the anniversary of those three days of peace, love, and mud known as Woodstock. Those who care about the iconic rock festival know that Joan Baez performed while pregnant, Pete Townshend brained Abbie Hoffman with a guitar, and Jimi Hendrix closed out the concert in the early morning sunshine of the fourth day. Hendrix gave the exhausted thousands before him an unusual sight: he played an encore, quite a rarity in his career.
In Sixties Rock: Garage, Psychedelic, and Other Satisfactions, Michael Hicks delves into the history of “Hey, Joe,” the song Hendrix performed as his encore:
In January, 1962, William Moses Roberts Jr. copyrighted yet another song entitled “Hey Joe.” This song, however, rejected the lightheartedness of earlier “Hey Joe” songs. A crime ballad with a question-answer format, Roberts’s song dwelt on jealousy and retribution. . . .
Several things about this “Hey Joe” have led people to question whether Roberts really wrote it. Because it draws on so many well-established song conventions, the song seems considerably older than the date of copyright. In his most fanciful account, Roberts claims that the words came to him as he walked with a young woman on an East Coast beach. He wrote the words in the sand, but, of course, the tide washed them away. It was also the last time he saw the woman, his only witness to the occasion.
“Hey Joe” became a strangely ubiquitous Sixties cover, appearing on various albums and in the set list of L.A. up-and-comers the Byrds. David Crosby loved the song, but presumably the rest of the band felt otherwise, since it didn’t appear on their debut album. Love recorded it, and the Cryan’ Shames, and Spirit, and the Shadows of Knight, and the Leaves, and about a thousand others. It was the “Yesterday” of 1960s murder ballads.
Hendrix, of course, had the hit version. It broke him in the U.K., and helped power his debut album Are You Experienced? into the U.S. top five. Surely, such an iconic recording closed the book on “Hey Joe.” Who would dare contend with the might of Jimi Hendrix? Hicks clues us in:
The first cover, released in the summer of 1967, was by Cher (then half of Sonny and Cher). She sings the song in the original key of A, but copies as best she can all of Hendrix’s textual idiosyncrasies. Behind her voice, strings play and a choir sings, while the bassist plays incessantly the bass line Noel Redding (of Hendrix’s group) had played only sparingly.
The second . . . was a straightforward slow soul arrangement by Wilson Pickett, replete with horn section, tambourines, a heavy backbeat, and gospel-driven vocal. This arrangement, released in summer of 1970, places the song squarely in the rhythm-and-blues vocal tradition that Hendrix had evoked in his arrangement.
Trivia for your Woodstock weekend barbeque: the Wicked Pickett’s version had Duane Allman on guitar.