Monday, July 4, 2011

Star Spangled Banner, Jimi Hendrix (1969)

For baby boomers, no rendition of our national anthem is more potent than the one performed in the final set of Woodstock by Jimi Hendrix. I don't know what people encountering his Star Spangled Banner for the first time might think about it now, but then, it was the very personification of the socio-political conflicts of the era from whence it came.

I have already written about how Hendrix's cover of All Along the Watchtower represented the chaos of that time period in a way that Bob Dylan never anticipated - and himself applauded. That was the thing about Hendrix - he channeled mayhem in a way no one else could, or dared to.

One can hardly imagine what Francis Scott Key might have thought about this particular cover. Hendrix had been performing it in live shows throughout the year before Woodstock, and not always to appreciative reception. There were concerns about whether he should perform it at all in a venue that was supposed to be all about peace, love and understanding. But he did - albeit 10 hours behind schedule from all of the technical difficulties the event had contended with.

In fact, the sun was rising on the new day as, with the instrument that gave him voice, Hendrix contorts and bends the anthem into submission, with and without a wah wah pedal, screaming feedback alternating with melodic interludes that had the audience utterly rapt for four minutes - then he transitioned without a break directly into Purple Haze. There's even a few seconds of the bugle call from Taps thrown in for good measure, a requiem if there ever was one.

All of this played out against the backdrop of an ever-escalating undeclared war in Vietnam. In just a few more months, President Nixon, by executive order, reinstituted the draft, and young men I knew personally began to quake in their boots as the "lottery" that was devised to handle this put them squarely in the crosshairs.

Was the Star Spangled Banner, Woodstock edition, an act of pure contempt or a clarion call for everyone to face up to what was happening in the world? On this 235th American Independence Day, I only know that we are allowed to decide the answer to that for ourselves.


Holly A Hughes said...

You're so right -- the context that gave this song its impact is probably lost on younger listeners. Thanks for putting it all back in perspective!

I'm still trying to figure out why Jimi leaves me cold. Somehow that seems like a betrayal of my entire generation!

BTW there's a cool track on Bootsy Collins' latest album that interweaves an interview with Jimi with some great Hendrix-inspired instrumentals.

J. Anthony Snorgrass, PhD said...

Actually I think the younger demo has it's own new millennial context for this song that is eerily similar, yet as oblivious to us as our's was to our parents :-) We must stay as relevant as Jimi has.