Five Good Covers presents five cross-genre reinterpretations of an oft-covered song.
“Hey Joe” ranks right up there with “Stagolee” in the list of deathless murder ballads, and we have Billy Roberts to thank for its existence.
Billy Roberts? Who he, you ask, as did I, long believing the tale that Tim Rose spun about it being trad.arr. It certainly should be, call and refrain being common features within the traditional canon, but there isn’t enough evidence to nail that theory, so Billy Roberts, a ’60s coffeehouse folkie, has the official rights thereto. (Never mind the theory that he “gave” the song to Dino Valente, author of the Youngbloods’ “Get Together,” in order to give Valente some royalty income while he was in prison.)
The Leaves get the credit for breaking “Hey Joe” to the masses; the Byrds, Love, and multiple garage bands helped to spread the word. Of course, it is the version by Jimi Hendrix that is the best known and arguably the template. Indeed, I would go as far as to say that it isn’t a kosher cover without the emblematic ascending bass runs of Noel Redding that provide counterpoint to the melody. And that actually IS in the Leaves’ never-more-garage version of 1965, a full year before Hendrix.
There are myriad ways to tackle this song, many going for the straight-ahead, four-to-the-floor rush of the rock idiom, but it has been tackled in zydeco, bluegrass, reggae, soul, jazz and even Irish folk. However, there is yet to be a convincing version in the field of electronica, so if you’re looking to spread the word about “Hey Joe” a whole new way, there’s your best bet. If you just want to enjoy the song in a non-Hendrix style, try these five…
Buckwheat Zydeco – Hey Joe (Billy Roberts cover)
First up is an elegant waltzy swagger through “Hey Joe,” with a marvelous cajun accordion intro, clattering drums and drawled vocal, before the will they/won’t they bass line follows a wailing guitar and more squeezebox. (They will!) Stanley “Buckwheat” Dural, Jr, is Louisiana zydeco royalty and has forged a long career playing both the traditional favourites and more blues-based covers, often sharing the stage with such famous names as Robert Plant, Mavis Staples and Dwight Yoakam. Plant has, of course, covered this song at least twice.
Black Uhuru – Hey Joe (Billy Roberts cover)
No mistaking the song; it’s straight in with the bassline, before becoming a shoo-in for roots reggae at its finest. Black Uhuru have been around in one form or another since the 1970s, proving an effective foil for those who might have thought Marley too bland. This comes from their later period, in 1990, with only stalwart original member Duckie Simpson left on board, with a less threatening, less radical image than a decade or so before. I particularly love the brief clavinet solo at 3:50.
Brad Mehldau Trio – Hey Joe (Billy Roberts cover)
This “Hey Joe” breaks all the rules, being not only instrumental, but looooong! But somehow it works, as Mehldau, fast becoming the go-to jazz pianist to go for those who don’t like jazz, inflicts his well-worked brand on it. I particularly enjoy the double bass solo that precedes an extended piano variation. Finally, just as you might begin to despair, or wane even, here it comes, on keyboard, the defining motif.
Bap Kennedy – Hey Joe (Billy Roberts cover)
A country-ish take, imaginable on a street corner at dusk, I’m never sure whether this “Hey Joe” does or does not work. Reflection suggests it does, more through the instrumental dialogue than perhaps the vocal. Bap Kennedy is the elder sibling of sometime Van Morrison singer Brian Kennedy, and has increasingly steered an Americana path from his earlier Northern Irish roots in Belfast rock band Energy Orchard. Remarkably, there isn’t even a hint of the dur-dur-dur-dur until almost an afterthought in the coda, so maybe it should be defaulted.
Jerry Douglas – Hey Joe (Billy Roberts cover)
From Austin-style to Nashville bluegrass, dobro master Douglas knows his onions. His cover of “Hey Joe” is a regular highlight of his annual forays to the U.K., as part of the Transatlantic Sessions tour, usually (like here) including the accompanying vocals and mandolin of Tim O’Brien. The recurring motif is well to the fore, as O’Brien hoots through the vocal with joy. A show-stopper live and on record, even if offending the sniffy nosed purists of this genre.
Lick The Tins – Hey Joe (Billy Roberts cover)
I could easily find 10 more quality versions of “Hey Joe” to share, but here is perhaps the least faithful to my expectations, by Lick the Tins. This short-lived London Irish group rode their brief wave in 1986, when they released their actually-not-half-bad LP Blind Man on a Flying Horse; their sound was an early mash of the Pogues style and Lindisfarne, with occasional female vocals, as on their better known Elvis P cover featured recently in these pages. There is nothing remotely relevant to the tune until an almost afterthought of a coda, with first verse sung against the tide of some tuneful jiggery, with no bass in earshot at all. Love it!
Go to Hey Joe Versions to learn more about the song, who influenced Billy Roberts in the writing of it, and the over 1700 artists who have performed it.