First in a series where Qwest TV dives into music’s most monumental moments, we journey back to the iconic final day of Woodstock, 1969. Hendrix’ surprise performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner” astounded and confounded audiences, and it has inspired music lovers ever since.
By revisiting the footage of Hendrix on August 18, 1969 – complete with his red headscarf, free swagger, Fender Strat and wall of amps – we are able to watch myths being constructed in real time. In grainy pixels, he steps forward, proceeding to tear into a supposedly sacred document; stretching it, testing its dimensions, stirring in ambiguous and incendiary motifs.
Was it the rock and roll equivalent of Colin kaepernick taking the knee before a 2016 NFL game? Was it a bloody invocation of the Vietnam war? Was it, against all odds, an expression of patriotism? For every theory there is a counter-theory; for every supposition, a moot point seems to follow.
This particular account begins with Hendrix’ agent Michael Jeffrey organising for Jimi (who was the highest paid musician at Woodstock) to close out the festival. Cue: pouring rain, technical failures, lack of food, lack of fencing, approx. half a million ticketless revellers turning up to Max Yasgur’s alfalfa field … Any notion of proper programming quickly disappeared.
Instead, the famous slot was moved to Monday morning and Jimi performed with his longtime collaborator Mitch Mitchell on drums, bassist Billy Cox and guitarist Larry Lee in an unrehearsed, ramshackle outfit called Gypsy Sun and Rainbows.
At some point during that morning, Woodstock’s official photographer Henry Diltz awoke in a station wagon to the sound of “piercing” and “pure” electric guitar. Jimi was on stage, and here’s where accounts begin to differ from each other, the information having trickled down through the years and emerged in different ways.
Liveforlivemusic’s considerable readership, for example, were informed that 30,000 remaining festival-goers gathered at 9am for Jimi’s performance. WatchMojo’s twenty million subscribers, on the other hand, heard that it began slightly earlier, at 8.30am. “Therealwoodstockstory” also wrote of a 9am start but claimed that the crowd size was more like 180,000 people. “Less than 200,000” was the figure that another popular blog site opted for, speaking of the bright and early 8am start … and so on.
In any case, the festival was meant to have already finished and Monday morning responsibilities had drawn many people away. This served to bestow a special ‘survivors’ solidarity on the reduced crowd, who would all be able to say they had, in fact, been there.
“This is going to be interesting…”
Eddie Kramer, legendary producer and engineer, spoke of that most elusive of ideas – the zeitgeist surrounding the festival: “There was a sense that something was about to happen. If you look at the political climate, if you look at … America at the time, in the midst of the Vietnam war, the hippie movement, flower power… [you thought] this is going to be interesting.”
Other accounts echo the same tone, with the atmosphere that morning seeming to emanate a sense of expectancy, of ordainment; as if Jimi’s stars had been aligned the night before and he was set to emerge with a pristine, godly glow. Diltz describes the scene from just outside his wagon: “those huge speakers bouncing off the hillsides, and an eerie, silent, pre-dawn, misty kind of silence. The notes reflected back again.”
In the thick of it, however, cameraman Michael Wadleigh provides us with quite a different image. When the moment came and Hendrix, accompanied only by Mitch Mitchell, began to let the first few notes of the national anthem fly, Wadleigh recalls the crowd’s reaction: “I remember people literally tearing their hair out … I saw people grabbing their heads, so ecstatic, so stunned and moved.”
Oh, say can you see?
The Hendrix rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner” took the number one spot in Guitar World’s 2011 list of 100 Greatest Performances. Indeed, it is exactly this discourse of ranking, of pushing and pulling within a landscape of fierce allegorical interpretation, that has granted it mythical status. For music fans and non-music fans alike, the performance shattered expectations, and people have been picking up the pieces ever since.
Writer Charles Shaar Murray laid out one theory, claiming that the scream of Hendrix’ guitar mimicked the “corrupting, distorting” effect of the Vietnam War. This idea is now widespread, with countless accounts of how the use of a vibrato pedal conjures a churning effect, like the rapid spin of helicopter propellers. Then, there are the piercing high notes of victim’s cries, sourced from aerial attacks in Hanoi before being transposed thousands of miles to Jimi’s guitar strings in Bethel, New York. These are bending tones, threatening to dive bomb into the melody with all the predatory slowness of falling missiles.
For author Reuben Jackson, however, the rendition represented something way more nebulous – the blues – “in the broadest emotional, poetic, thematic sense.” He even argued that Hendrix was in favor of the Vietnam War’s anti-Communist “domino-effect,” something his biographer Charles Cross agrees with. To them, the chaos and the rupture in his playing was a reaction to society. Historian Michael Doyle likened it to a Jeremiad sermon, warning against moral failure; it has been described as a scream of black rage, a scream of protestors, even a scream of patriotism.
Indeed, it is nothing if not instantly American. Greil Marcus saw it as a way of saying, amongst Civil Rights tumult, “I’m a citizen of this country, too.” Contemporary trumpeter and composer Terence Blanchard felt similarly, describing it as an act of patriotic pride and inclusivity. The Bob Dylan-written script for the 2003 film Masked and Anonymous expressed the same idea: “What was he saying, Revolution? I don’t think so … He was saying ‘hey, i’m an American citizen’ … calling out to his forefathers, the pilgrims.”
In an interview with Dick Cavett a month after Woodstock, Jimi declared “All I did was play it. I’m American, so I played it,” remaining placid on the subject whenever later asked. In the final summation, therefore, the myth of Jimi’s “Star-Spangled Banner” grew under its own steam, without the artist fanning the flames. At one point during the performance, just after “Voodoo Child,” he said the following: “You can leave if you want to. We’re just jammin’, that’s all.”