A story about Billy Roberts and Hey Joe by Neil Lewis

I was a coffeehouse folk singer in D.C. in the late 50′s.  I had been caught up in the music and lore from the moment I first heard Burl Ives in the mid 40′s.  ( I had a Stinson LP when Ives still had Hair!)  When the folk revival hit, I was ready with words and music for about 1,000 songs, learned, mostly from recordings, from Ives, Richard Dyer-Bennet, John Jacob Niles, and of course Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie and others.  I haunted the archives of American folksong and actually owned a copy of Child’s English and Scottish Popular Ballads.  I had no trouble finding gigs in the D.C. coffee houses that were springing up all over town.

One night at a place called the Unicorn, a VW van drove up with a Handsome, slender, bearded, guitar pickin’ dude  who wasted no time at all in starting to date my 20 year old estranged wife and capturing the hearts of us all.
 Billy hung about for a  time and not long after, The Unicorn closed, and I migrated to St. Thomas, in the Virgin Islands.

 A number of years later, I was invited to a pool party by an acquaintance of mine.  It was to be in honor of a a friend visiting form the west coast, who played guitar.  I didn’t catch the name, but I went to the party.  Typically,  When the dude climbed on a bar stool, next to the pool and started to sing, almost no one paid any attention.
One guy did listen.  I’d been in the pickers shoes too many times to not be a good audience,  I sat on the edge of the pool and hung on every note.  People did laugh when he sang,”Hey! Get the fat one”  He was actually a bit rolly poly.  Later in the evening, we got to chatting, and naturally we spoke of people we knew in D.C.  I came up with “Did you ever know Billy Roberts?”  He looked a bit startled and answered,”Yeah, I AM Billy Roberts!”  As soon as I got over my embarrassment, he explained about the accident and how he was 60 pounds or so heavier since rehab. We discussed the “Hey Joe” mess and he gave full credit to a guy named Howie Mitchell in D.C. who insisted that any of us who were writing tunes, send a copy to ourselves, registered mail and keep it, unopened, as proof of when we had written it.  Billy said this was what substantiated his claim.

 I didn’t hear any more news until I read your article.  I haven’t played any gigs in some years.  ( I’m 77) I still keep my guitar hung on the wall and try to hit a few licks every day or so.  I have severe Dupuytren’s contractures of the fingers, so it’s not so easy.

Neil Lewis

From an e-mail from Neil Lewis to Billy Stapleton
Sent to me by Billy Stapleton on January 31, 2011
Permission granted to Jan Marius by Neil Lewis to post this e-mail on Hey Joe Versions  (February 1, 2011)

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