Hey Joe, Where Have You Gone?

This article originally appeared in inspiredgroundproject.com

The powerful may be able to rip out one, two or maybe three roses. But, they will never be able to stop the arrival of Spring

– Lula Da Silva

A Busker’s Tale

It’s only fitting that the man who was eventually adjudicated the song rights to Hey Joe was busking in New York Citywhen he claimed it as his own, after a usurper had been collecting the royalties on the already popular tune. But, that was four years before Jimi Hendrix branded it with his indelible mark, launching the bluesy melody into the rock and roll stratosphere.

Billy Roberts is said to have written the song while playing on the streets of Greenwich Village in the early 60’s, but an ex-girlfriend would later throw her hat into the authorship controversy ring by stating that she had, in fact, penned the ditty herself, which she called “Baby, Please Don’t Go To Town”.

FILE PHOTO – Niela Miller (aka Niela Halleck), Billy Robert’s former girlfriend who claimed authorship of Hey Joe under the name “Baby, Please Don’t Go To Town”

Regardless of who wrote the initial version, Hendrix would make a seemingly minor change to the lyrics – to go along with his haunting interpretation – that would crystalize it into one of the most searing bit of musical pulp fiction ever performed.

Guns, Money and the 60’s

We can’t be sure of what motivated Jimi Hendrix to swap the word “money” for “gun” in the opening line of Hey Joe. Perhaps, it was simply a case of a word flowing better with the music. But, we can’t ignore how that tiny modification transformed the story told in the song, making it a much more visceral experience and painting Joe as a far more violent character than originally intended.

What was not in doubt was the mood of the country in the mid 1960’s, coming off the trauma of a President shot in cold blood and the ramping up of the conflict in Vietnam. The anti-war movement, along with militant minority groups like the Black Panthers and the Native American Red Power movement, showed American awareness of state-sponsored violence to be at fever pitch. Hendrix’s recasting of Hey Joe at such a pivotal point would prove to be a cool metaphor about very hot button issues, which were not limited to the United States, alone.

Worldwide Mutiny

Hendrix’s first hit single as part of the Jimi Hendrix Experience trio, “Hey joe”, reached the top 10 in England’s music charts and took off from there to influence the way the song has been interpreted by the myriad artists who jumped on the bandwagon over the following years.

The song was released in the Autumn of 1966 and the musical prodigy would perform his extraordinary version in front of stunned peers from the Beatles, Rolling Stones and others at London’s Bag O’Nails.

In less than two years, massive student protests would erupt in London, across Europe and the world over matters of social justice and escalating political tensions. Songs like Hendrix’s “Hey Joe” set the tone for an increasingly restless and unapologetic youth, that was unafraid to ask Uncle Sam and his family members where ‘he’ was going with that “gun”.

The socially-motivated artistic effervescence that flourished in the latter part of the 60’s produced much of the music we still listen to today; an age of comparative conformity stunted creativity within the realm of musical creation.

Banned Lyrics

The music industry, in particular, has a pretty sordid past and a not-so-clean present. The business side of things was controlled by the mob from its earliest days, when the Chicago mafia ran the jukebox racket and most of the bars and clubs where crooners and divas performed. It was organized crime that determined who got radio-play and sold more records throughout much of the 40’s, 50’s and early 60’s.

Legendary guitarist Jimi Hendrix (Linda McCartney/National Portrait Gallery/Smithsonian Institution)

But, the unique circumstances that came together in the latter half of the 20th century as people took hold of their own power, produced a cascade of artistic expression so threatening to the powers-that-be, it had to be systematically suppressed and rooted out.

The explosion of creative agency that Hendrix and many others asserted during the late 60’s and 70’s left a body of incredible artistic work, that should have only grown in scope but was, instead, overtaken by a series of direct attacks by conservative forces upon the Humanities and art disciplines in universities and society, in general.

The mob, itself, would be phased out of the music business and supplanted with an even more ruthless corporate power structure, that has condensed music to algorithmic formulae and quarterly earnings projections. Artists with a message are shunned, if not blacklisted. Music from the heart is too risky for the bottom line and the party line.

FILE PHOTO – Billy Roberts, who is widely credited with writing the original “Hey Joe”.

Creative Revival

Nothing beyond the most banal entertainment is permitted to find daylight, because any reflection on the actual state of the world and society threatens to pierce a hole in a carefully crafted fiction, which pretends drone strikes and white phosphorous are rooted in some sort of ethical principle.

The persistence of life, however, cannot be suppressed forever. The seedling will sprout in the smallest crevice between slabs of concrete, like a busker on the sidewalk singing from his soul. So, next time you walk past someone strumming that guitar or blowing into that sax on your way to work, stop and listen, because that’s the sound of life trying to break free.

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