Who Actually Wrote “Hey Joe”?


Jimi Hendrix recorded the definitive version of “Hey Joe.” But in fact, the authorship of “Hey Joe” is among the most disputed copyrights in rock history. At least four people have claimed ownership, and none of them was Jimi.

From the time it was first registered for copyright with the American Library of Congress in 1962 to the time it helped launch the career of the greatest guitarist who ever lived in 1966, dozens of artists had recorded their own version of “Hey Joe.” And each person who recorded it had their own theories about its original authorship.

So how did “Hey Joe” go from Greenwich Village to Monterey Pop in half-a-decade? And how did this song manage to piss off so many people along the way? The story begins as so many others in history do–with a man taking credit for a woman’s work.

Niela Halleck—Baby Don’t Go Downtown (1955)

Some time around 1955, folk singer Niela Halleck began to perform “Baby Don’t Go Downtown” live. It was an original composition. You can find the full lyric, as well as Niela’s first-person account of authorship, here. The familiar chord progression of “Hey Joe” can be heard in her first recorded demo from 1962.

She applied for and received copyright ownership of the song in 1964 under her married name Niela Miller Horn. Unfortunately, her demo would go unreleased until 2009.

Billy Roberts—Hey Joe (1962)

In 1956, Niela Halleck was dating a fellow folk singer named Billy Roberts. Around roughly the same time, Roberts began performing a song called “Hey Joe” during live appearances. The arrangement was nearly identical to that of his ex-girlfriend’s composition.

Scottish folk singer Len Partridge claims to have collaborated with Roberts on their 1956 composition, which merged Horn’s song structure with the opening come-on from Carl Smith’s otherwise unrelated 1953 country hit, “Hey Joe!”

The Roberts-Partridge rewrite also borrowed heavily from the long narrative tradition of folk murder balladry, in which a jealous man murders his cheating wife and runs from the law. For a good case history, see Appalachian folk legend Clarence Thomas, who recorded the first-known version of archetypal murder ballad “Little Sadie” in 1929.

Billy Roberts applied for copyright ownership of “Hey Joe” in 1962, two years before his ex-girlfriend received copyright ownership of “Baby Don’t Go Downtown.”

Dino Valenti—Hey Joe (May ’63)

Billy Roberts played frequently alongside friend and fellow folkie Dino Valenti during the Greenwich Village revival of the early 60s. But by 1963, the folk scene was on the move. Los Angeles became the beating heart of the emergent folk-rock boom. Valenti—later famous as the leader of San Francisco psych group Quicksilver Messenger Service—made his way to the Sunset Strip.

He brought “Hey Joe” with him, and even claimed authorship in 1963. There are rumors that Roberts may have gifted copyright of the song to Valenti, who was grappling with the financial fallout of a recent arrest.

It was surely a generous gesture, though arguably the song wasn’t really his to give away. In fact, by her own account, Niela Miller Horn was advised against pursuing a copyright claim because Valenti’s involvement would make it a costly and futile undertaking.

David Crosby–Hey Joe (1964ish)

Valenti’s affiliation did help the song gravitate to the West Coast. By many accounts, David Crosby of the Byrds played an instrumental role in popularizing the song once it got there. Crosby reportedly loved the song, introduced it to countless other musicians, and added it to the Byrds live repertoire. According to multiple sources, Crosby insisted that the Byrds record a studio version of the song.

His bandmates refused.

At the time, the Byrds held residency at a Sunset Strip club called Ciro’s. But with their chart-topping cover of Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” in the summer of ’65, the Byrds departed L.A. for global stardom.

The Leaves—Hey Joe (May ’66)

A frat-rock combo called the Leaves stepped into their Ciro’s residency. Like the Byrds, they added “Hey Joe” to their nightly setlist. Unlike the Byrds, they had the foresight to record the song in 1965.

Their first version flopped. They recorded it again in early ’66. It flopped again. The band replaced their guitarist, added a fuzztone effect, recorded it a third time and, in the spring of 1966, finally landed a hit.

The Leaves peaked at #31 in May of 1966 and stayed on the U.S. charts for nine weeks.

This became the first official studio release of “Hey Joe,” an event which ultimately inclined Billy Roberts to reclaim sole authorship from Valenti. Once again, Niela Miller Horn considered staking her rightful claim. Folk icon Pete Seeger, a friend of Niela’s, pledged that he would even be willing to testify on her behalf. But once again, the legal pursuit never materialized.

The Byrds—Hey Joe (Where You Gonna Go?) (July-’66)

Countless other L.A. bands recorded their own version of “Hey Joe” in the same year, most notably the Music Machine, the Standells, and Love.

The Love version was a minor chart entry.

This, of course, infuriated David Crosby. He chastised his bandmates for declining to record their own version. Though Crosby was hardly the most capable vocalist in the Byrds, his bandmates felt they had no choice but to let him sing his own version on their 1966 release—The Fifth Dimension. The album was a smash hit, but their version of “Hey Joe” was not.

Tim Rose—Hey Joe (Summer of ’66)

Tim Rose was a regular performer in the Greenwich Village scene in the early ’60s. In fact, Rose cut his teeth in 1963 playing in a Village combo called the Big 3 with Mama Cass and her then-husband Jim Hendricks, who has absolutely nothing to do with Jimi Hendrix.

Except this…

In 1966, a solo Tim Rose performed his version of “Hey Joe” during a set at New York’s famed Cafe Wha? His studio recording of “Hey Joe” even became a minor regional hit that year. Rose claimed that his folkier take on the song was inspired by versions he’d heard as a child—versions that far predated Billy Roberts’ claim of ownership. Therefore, Rose claimed his version was “traditionally arranged”—an indication that “Hey Joe” is a folk song of no known authorship.

Still, it should be lost on no one that, in 1990, Tim Rose released and claimed copyright for a song called “Blue Steel .44” that is, of course, just “Hey Joe” with slightly different lyrics.

Perhaps more importantly, in attendance at Rose’s 1966 performance was fellow Cafe Wha? performer Jimi Hendrix. Hendrix subsequently added his own version of “Hey Joe” to live performances.

Jimi Hendrix—Hey Joe (December ’66)

Just as Jimi began to incorporate the song into his live performances, Animals bassist Chas Chandler discovered the Tim Rose recording. The Animals were, of course, first-wave British Invaders, whose greatest success had been with their own modern reclamation project—“House of the Rising Sun.”

For history buffs, it was the above-mentioned Clarence Ashley who recorded the first-known version of “House of the Rising Sun” in 1933 (along side frequent accompanist Gwen Foster). Ashley claimed to have learned the song from his grandfather.

In 1964, the Animals topped the American, Canadian and British charts with their version of “House of the Rising Sun.” By some accounts, this is the very first “folk-rock” hit.

Chandler envisioned a similar type of success with “Hey Joe,” provided he could pair it with the right performer.

When Chandler discovered that a sensational young guitarist named Jimi Hendrix had his own take on “Hey Joe,” it was love at first sound.

Chandler became Jimi’s manager and took him back to England to become a star. The presumption was (and remains to this date), that British listeners are simply more astute than American listeners.

Hendrix is proof. They arrived in England in September of ’66, recorded “Hey Joe” in October and released it for British listeners in December. (The copyright was formally credited to Billy Roberts, by the way.)

In January of 1967, “Hey Joe” peaked at #6 on the British charts. It was released in May of 1967 in the U.S. and failed to chart…which is embarrassing for us.

But of course, the rest is well-known history. With the 1967 release of his debut record—Are You Experienced?—Jimi Hendrix tilted rock and roll on its axis. Then came Jimi’s pyrotechnic performance at the Monterey Pop Festival. Hendrix was a phenomenon and his debut helped soundtrack the Summer of Love.

Two years hence, as the sun came up on the Woodstock Festival, 80,000 spectators remained for the final performance. Jimi Hendrix capped three days of peace, love and music with a two hour headlining set. His final encore—“Hey Joe.”