Anthem to Jimi Hendrix
Rick de Yampert/Candide’s Notebooks, February 9, 2007
Virginia Woolf wrote that “On or about December, 1910, human character changed.” On or about sunrise on Aug. 18, 1969, human character changed again — and that moment was immortalized when Jimi Hendrix performed “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the Woodstock Music and Art Fair. “It was a real eerie moment which just made your hair stand up,” says Henry Diltz, who, as the official photographer of Woodstock, was there. “I was standing on the stage right next to him, shooting all these pictures. Most of the people had left. It left this entire hillside which was now barren except for soggy sleeping bags and flotsam and jetsam in this muddy field. It looked like a Civil War battlefield, like those old Matthew Brady pictures of a muddy field with dead horses. You could see lumps of things out in the field. There was a tremendous odor coming from the field. Then Jimi did that amazing ‘Star-Spangled Banner’ which echoed off the hillsides, around and came back. Gosh, it was just a riveting, riveting moment.”
Not everyone believes so. In a recent National Review essay, Peter Wood riffs on his thesis about “a distinctly contemporary style of anger that I call New Anger” (an idea he also explores in his new book “A Bee in the Mouth: Anger in America Now”). “This is the anger of show-offs and eager-to-ignite match-heads,” Wood writes in National Review. “It had been gaining ground in American culture for decades before arriving in mainstream politics.” Need examples? Wood writes: “Think of Jimi Hendrix de-constructing ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ on his Stratocaster guitar, or John McEnroe on the tennis court reviling his own fans. The shift from a culture that prized self-control to a culture that prizes self-expression has unfolded over at least two generations.” What? Wood, a professor of anthropology and the humanities at King’s College in New York City, associates a performance by a seminal artist of Promethean stature with the sniveling-punk attitude of a sports star? To say that’s idiotic and displays a stunningly myopic view of contemporary American history would likely warrant a charge of “New Anger! New Anger!” from Wood.
Let’s be generous and assume the dog ate Wood’s copy of Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States” before Wood could read it. The first time I heard Hendrix’s “Banner” as a teen, I assumed I was hearing some sort of war film soundtrack — that some movie director was slicing and dicing a standard-issue recording of our national anthem over some battlefield scene, although I was wise enough to realize this wasn’t a soundscape for any John Wayne-rah-rah-America flick. When I later discovered this was a solo guitar performance by Jimi Hendrix, recorded during his fabled Woodstock appearance no less, my psyche was body-slammed. The more I learned of recent American history over the years, the more I realized Hendrix had become a brave, tragic shaman that moment at Woodstock — a hippie magician who had dared to channel pain and dark forces in order to exorcise them. We the American people sometimes forget that lesson we were taught in the fourth grade, that the words of “The Star-Spangled Banner” were written by Francis Scott Key after he witnessed a battle in the War of 1812. How many countries on this planet have an anthem that, like ours, contains the word “bombs”?
Hendrix’s resurrection of our national anthem as a war song bombed our nation’s collective subconscious on several fronts. By the summer of ’69, a number of Americans were suspecting, in the wake of the Tet Offensive, that the Vietnam War had become a hydra-headed quagmire. And the streets of America seemed like a war zone. The assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, and the riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention had rattled our nation in the 18 months prior to Woodstock. Less so the Orangeburg Massacre — unless, like a friend of mine, you were in that small South Carolina town in February 1968 when highway patrol officers shot and killed three young, unarmed black men who were protesting segregation. “They’re killing black people out there!” is what my friend remembers her unnerved uncle saying when he returned to the family home that night.
Although Hendrix had always been low-key when speaking publicly about racism in America, his music spoke volumes to many. In the book “Jimi Hendrix: The Man, the Magic, the Truth,” author Sharon Lawrence quotes Scottish artist Mark Boyle, who was at Hendrix’s first concert after King’s assassination: “Jimi came on very quietly to enormous applause. Then he said softly into the microphone, ‘This number is for a friend of mine.’ He then began an improvisation that had a beauty that was simply appalling. Immediately everyone knew the friend was Martin Luther King Jr., and this music seemed to convey all the agony of black people. The whole audience was weeping … It was a lament for a great man, but it was the most harrowing lament, beyond anyone’s imagining. When he finished there was no applause. Everyone in this vast crowd just sat or stood sobbing, and Jimi laid his guitar down and walked quietly off the stage.”
In the book “All You Need Is Love” by Tony Palmer, he quotes Eric Burdon, singer with the rock band the Animals: “If you want to see what an American black is going through today, where his mind is at, go see Jimi Hendrix, and you’ll realize why there are race riots in America and why the country is close to civil war. He’s a wizard on guitar, but his music is so disturbed and explosive. He is exorcising generations of anger.” Fittingly, Hendrix wove a bit of “Taps” into his Woodstock “Star-Spangled Banner.” Perhaps more tellingly, he segued from our national anthem into “Purple Haze.”
Yes, Jimi, you kissed the sky that day — even though, despite all the peace ’n’ love vibe of Woodstock, it was a dark sky.
Rick de Yampert is an occasional contributor to the Notebooks and a columnist for The Daytona Beach (Fla.) News-Journal. He can be reached at email@example.com