One popular trope in sixties rock was the song about the man who had to flee the law because he killed his woman. Unpleasant – and more so when the songs were played like some sort of macho victory dance.
Probably the best-known song of this type is “Hey Joe” – covered by about everybody, but Hendrix’s version is likely the most famous. Hendrix is at least smart enough to keep an undercurrent of almost creepy menace in his performance…but it’s overshadowed by his exuberance which makes the song a bit hard to take.
What do to recover such songs? Well, one thing is to, first, discard the most distinctive arrangement details of the famous versions of the song: Robert Plant covered “Hey Joe” a few years ago, and discarded the chord sequence and Hendrix’s scalar runs. But more important, Plant creates an atmosphere of creepy dread: you really don’t want to know the narrator, and you want to know “Joe” even less. Plant wants you to understand that we’re talking about a cold-blooded murderer here.
Neil Young’s “Down by the River” seems clearly to be a rewrite of “Hey Joe,” or at least an attempt to address similar ideas, and while Young switches things up by singing exclusively in the narrative first person – and there’s an implicit threat to whoever he’s talking to in “be on my side, I’ll be on your side” – there’s an odd, dreamy lassitude in his version, especially in the lead-in to the chorus, which, again, moves the listener away from the brutality of the act (then, Young has said he doesn’t intend the song to be taken literally…not that the song tells you that at all). Low and Dirty Three covered “Down by the River” a few years back, and they made the telling decision to strip away the chorus (which is also the confession) and sing it once only, near the end of the track. This would be very effective if you weren’t familiar with the song (which, of course, nearly everyone is), but it works on listeners who know the song nearly as effectively, by disturbing your expectations – which, again, brings into sharp focus the blunt fact of the chorus: “Down by the river, I shot my baby…dead.” (They also chose to have Mimi Parker rather than Alan Sparhawk sing the track…which changes things a bit, depending whether you take Parker to be implying a female narrator, or whether you hear her singing a character who happens to be male, a common-enough folk tactic.)
(I edited “Down by the River” by removing the first four minutes or so of artsy, ambient doodling…)
Robert Plant “Hey Joe” (Dreamland, 2002)
Low and Dirty Three “Down by the River” (In the Fishtank 7, 1999)