Music

Inside Jimi Hendrix’s Legendary And Controversial National Anthem Performance At Woodstock '69 

Megan Summers
Updated September 23, 2019 3.4k views
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Woodstock 1969 can be seen as the crowning event ofArticle Image the decade's free love movement, and its cultural impact spans generations. The shining star of the event turned out to be Jimi Hendrix's national anthem performance. His electric guitar rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner" shocked and awed both those who saw it and those who heard about it. Placed within the larger context of the festival, Hendrix's set was seen as an act of protest against the ongoing conflict in Vietnam. As Woodstock organizer Michael Lang shared, "It was always going to be more than a show. It was the end of the '60s - we'd been through the civil rights and anti-war movements and the assassinations of John F Kennedy and Malcolm X."

More than 186,000 tickets were sold for the festival - which occurred in Bethel, New York, between August 15 and August 18 - but the grounds were swamped by twice as many people. By the end of the first day, the event became free due to the unmanageable size of the audience. With bad weather and production issues, the festival's scheduled acts for Sunday were delayed further and further, causing it to run into Monday - an unplanned fourth day.

Hendrix, who was not scheduled to close the show, ended up being the concluding act after Roy Rogers declined to play. Rogers's decision led to a finale that struck a powerful, boundless chord. "I remember people literally tearing their hair out. I looked out with one eye and I saw people grabbing their heads, so ecstatic, so stunned and moved, a lot of people holding their breath, including me," declared the 1970 Woodstock documentary director Michael Wadleigh when describing Hendrix's set.

The true story behind Hendrix's choice to play "The Star-Spangled Banner" at Woodstock is - much like the artist himself - more complicated and creatively nuanced than it first appears.

Hendrix's Fascination With The 'Star-Spangled Banner' Pre-Dates The Festival

After the Jimi Hendrix Experience broke up, Hendrix assembled a temporary band, Gypsy Sun and Rainbows, to play at Woodstock. Band member Gerardo Velez told an interviewer years later that when he tried to persuade Jimi to push the envelope and do something new with their set, Hendrix informed him, "Nah, I’m going to do 'The Star-Spangled Banner.'"

While the spirit of Woodstock gave Hendrix's performance a spontaneous zeal, the guitarist made his preoccupation with the national anthem known long before that Monday morning. It's estimated he performed the piece 28 times before the festival, and 50 times throughout the course of his career. His first known performance of the song occurred at Merriweather Post Pavilion on August 16, 1968, and he used the stage to experiment with his interpretation of Francis Scott Key's tune.

Hendrix's versions fluctuated from extended renditions broken up into different movements to spoken word pieces containing quotes from popular TV shows. With his signature reverb and improvisational guitar playing, he transformed the song into both a sonic confrontation and contemplation for his audiences. He eventually incorporated the military call "Taps" into his performances, fusing American history, war, and the counter culture into an eruptive wall of sound.

Hendrix Played Live To A Dwindling Crowd of 30,000

Hendrix and his bandmates originally Article Imagethought they'd be ending the festival on Sunday night, but setbacks caused the festival to drag on until the next morning. “Every three hours, they’d come and they’d say, ‘Hey, you about ready to go on in 10 minutes?’" Velez reminisced about the group's all-night wait to play. By the time they went on stage at around 8:30 am on Monday morning, the remaining 30,000 attendees were just waking up or delirious from staying awake all night. 

“You could see a whole universe above them filled with sleeping bags and trash and bras and bathing suits, food strewn everywhere, prophylactics everywhere,” said Velez. The small band was dispersed on the massive, partially-deconstructed stage. They were all wearing flowing scarves on their heads, and Hendrix donned a white fringed, beaded leather shirt with blue accents. 

“You can leave if you want to. We’re just jammin’, that’s all,” Hendrix told the crowd before he played the piece containing "The Star-Spangled Banner." The song was played as a solo in the middle of a 30-minute melody that included his famous songs "Voodoo Child (Slight Return)" and "Purple Haze."

Most Of The Obsession With His Performance Came After The Release Of 1970's 'Woodstock' Documentary

The success of 1970's Woodstock documentary fueled the world's fascination with not only the festival, but also Hendrix's take on the national anthem. Directed by Michael Wadleigh, the documentary was a box-office success, and it also won an Oscar. The documentary's soundtrack was widely popular, and it featured Hendrix's "The Star-Spangled Banner" solo. Considering only 30,000 people actually saw Hendrix play at the festival, it was the documentary that established the song's place of prominence in American music history.

There was limited media at Woodstock by the final morning, but Wadleigh was there to capture Hendrix's performance. “If it weren’t as powerfully photographed, it may not be as famous as it is today,” he told the Today show. Wadleigh's camera was overheated during the performance, and Hendrix's amplifier was so loud he was unable to hear the camera's motor to know if it was still recording.

According to Dr. Mark Clague, "The film is what people remember, and today that performance can be found easily on YouTube, so it’s alive again 50 years later."

Fans Hailed His Rendition An Act Of Anti-Vietnam Protest

Media coverage since Hendrix's national anthem performance has largely looked upon his Woodstock pick as a defiant political show of solidarity with the anti-war movement. Historians, critics, and fans saw his unconventional take on the song as an expression of anger over the number of men, particularly black men, perishing in the Vietnam conflict. Historian Jeremy Wells compared the song to King's "Letter from a Birmingham Jail."

As a black man playing the anthem of a nation that prospered by enslaving and subjugating people of color, and as a veteran himself, people interpreted Hendrix's musical style as a commanding tour-de-force. "He held a key note a little too long, applied a little more pressure to his Stratocaster’s tremolo bar, and sent the pitch slowly downward as it rung out. It was a subtly unsettling effect, like the moan of an animal in distress, or an air-raid siren," wrote Andy Cush for Spin magazine. 

Many journalists positioned his performance as an artistic extension of comments the musician made in the past against the Vietnam conflict and in favor of the Black Panther Party. The FBI surveilled him, and his white business manager urged him against playing "The Star-Spangled Banner" for fear of inciting riots.

As an artist of mixed heritage, Hendrix was in a peculiar position: his music was considered too harsh by those in the black community and yet, while his heavy metal sound received accolades from the white community, he remained a target of its racism. Hendrix had to work much harder than other rock musicians to prove himself. "He didn't want to be known as just a black musician," Jeremy Wells said, "but he didn't want to be not known as a black musician." It was within the crosshairs of these conflicting social forces that Hendrix was able to perfect his rare approach to music.

Critics Claimed It Was A Controversial Attack On America

Even though "The Star-Spangled Banner" has a rich history of being reworked by performers dating back to the 19th century, from lyrics to instrumentation, the song's status as a fixed symbol of America after WWI erased this history. Renditions that seemed to diverge from the original were seen as obscene and disrespectful by the mainstream media. Not a year before Hendrix's Woodstock set, musician Jose Feliciano received extensive backlash after opening Game 5 of the 1968 World Series in Detroit with a soulful, folksy rendition of the anthem. Since the event was aired live on TV,Article Image negative feedback flooded in from all over the country. Feliciano's career was eventually salvaged, but his reputation was forever blemished.

This was the same world Hendrix was performing in, and while Woodstock was not aired live, journalists still found ways to confront him and question his intentions. At a press conference a few weeks after the festival, Hendrix had to defend himself by saying, “We’re all Americans... it was like ‘Go, America!’... We play it the way the air is in America today. The air is slightly static, see.”

TV talk show host Dick Cavett challenged Hendrix when he appeared on his show in September 1969. “What was the controversy about the national anthem and the way you played it?” Cavett asked.

“I don’t know, man,” Hendrix replied. “All I did was play it. I’m American, so I played it. I used to have to sing it in school, they made me sing it in school, so... it was a flashback.”

“Well, when you mention the national anthem and talk about playing it in any unorthodox way, you immediately get a guaranteed percentage of hate mail," Cavett said.

“That’s not unorthodox,” Hendrix said, cutting off his host. “That’s not unorthodox.”

“It isn’t unorthodox?” Cavett asked.

“No, no. I thought it was beautiful," the guitarist asserted.

Everyone Agrees His Guitar Playing Was Otherworldly

Hendrix's solo rendering of "The Star-Spangled Banner" at Woodstock lasted three minutes and 43 seconds. He'd already defined a new era of guitar playing, but when he raised his Fender Stratocaster into the air that dreary Monday morning, it was as if his gesture foretold the best was yet to come. He was the highest-paid act at Woodstock, making $18,000, and the technical, experimental expertise he demonstrated proved why.

At first, it sounded as if he would give his audience a straightforward version of the song on electric guitar, but around the time the lyrics “o’er the ramparts we watched" would have been sung, he began incorporating his effects pedals and whammy bar, sending the tune tumbling into new territory. The result was otherworldly - a rumbling, wordless take on "rockets' red glare" and "bombs bursting in air." As he segued into "Taps," it was clear he aimed to give war a musical sound, to create a sonic imitation that shook listeners to the core.

Hendrix relied heavily upon the recently invented wah-wah pedal, a distortion tool that allowed him to achieve such disturbing sounds. The pedal, when moved up and down, parrots the wails of the human voice, blurring the line between music and vocal communication. The pedal gave Hendrix the freedom and flexibility to extend his chord progressions, build texture and reverb, and merge improvisational elements into each performance.

“I always think of it as the greatest protest song ever, but it’s not just a protest song, it’s an incredibly layered, ambiguous piece of music,” critic Greil Marcus said. Another critic, Al Aronowitz, agreed: “It was the most electrifying moment of Woodstock, and it was probably the single greatest moment of the ’60s."

Hendrix Never Made Any Explicitly Political Comments About It, Wanting The Music To Speak For Itself

Hendrix's "Banner" moment at Woodstock was so emotionally evocative that everyone who knows it - having seen it, watched it, or read about it - seems to be on a quest to uncover its hidden meanings and significance. Hendrix, however, was never interested in connecting any specific political context to the song, leaving fans to interpret his comments in interviews and on Article ImageTV.

Where does this leave Hendrix's performance? As a work of art, it is a singular, overt expression of 1960s American life. As a political act, it has achieved an enduring reputation, but one that should be understood as part of Hendrix's creative career, not as the summation of it. Hendrix was able to transform the moods and attitudes around him into masterpieces, and he produced many of them. Hendrix used his music to communicate "so many different perspectives," music journalist Dave Marsh shared.

Rolling Stone journalist Sheila Weller interviewed Hendrix the month after Woodstock. Visiting his temporary compound in Liberty, New York, Weller described Hendrix's sensitivity about his artform. "I don’t want to be a clown anymore. I don’t want to be a 'rock and roll star,'" he told her. Hendrix wanted to be known as a serious, thoughtful musician, not a reactionary guitar-playing sex symbol.

The public never discovered where this relabeling was headed, though, because Hendrix passed just a year later.