It was fifty years ago that Jimi Hendrix performed the United States national anthem during a Monday morning for tens of thousands of people at the Woodstock Music and Art Fair.
Hendrix was the last act to take the stage. He had top-billing and was supposed to take the stage Sunday evening. Technical and weather delays led to the only morning performance he ever did for an audience. By the time he was introduced, many of the attendees had left to return home.
The national anthem was part of a medley of songs. In the set, Hendrix smoothly segues into the “Star Spangled Banner” after completing “Voodoo Child (Slight Return).” As his guitar distorts and wails the last notes, he launches into “Purple Haze.”
In fact, Hendrix performed the U.S. national anthem before, but his rendition had never achieved such a glorious sonic impact.
As journalist Barnard Collier recalled for PBS’ “Woodstock” documentary, “Into my head stabbed this sound. It sounded exactly like rockets, missiles, and bombs bursting in air. I’d never heard anything like that in my life.”
Tom Law, a member of the Hog Farm collective, which helped with food and security at the festival, said, “We’re at the most peaceful gathering that was probably happening on the planet at the time, and he hooked us up with Vietnam. It was the devastation and the brutality and the insanity.”
Hendrix was not the only artist to explicitly or implicitly reference the Vietnam War. Country Joe McDonald famously led attendees in a sing-a-long of the antiwar anthem, “Fish Cheer.” But the guitar virtuoso punctured a kind of bubble that had enveloped people throughout the weekend. It drove home the reality that this massive love-in had reached its end.
Laureen Starobin, one of the attendees, says in the same documentary, “We so did not want to leave. We kind of sensed that we could change the world for three days but the rest of the world wasn’t with us, and we knew that it was going to be a real culture shock coming back into society.”
This was dramatically illustrated in the director’s cut of Michael Wadleigh’s documentary that captures much of the essence of this watershed event. Hendrix’s guitar plays over shots of the emptied field with sleeping bags, wet cardboard, and trash strewn all over the muddy ground. A few individuals trudge through the slop, picking up some of the debris.
Hendrix’s anthem was jaw-dropping because those still at Woodstock experienced the first symptoms of culture shock. It ultimately metastasized into cynicism and despair in the early 1970s and ensured the music festival was a one-off affair.
Because of how Hendrix’s version of the anthem sounded, it was deemed offensive by the very people who had spent the weekend convinced the “hippiefest” would devolve into a disaster. However, Hendrix did not describe his rendition as a protest song. To him, it was simply beautiful.
A counter-perspective suggests his “Star Spangled Banner” was not anti-war but merely inclusive. There were towns that would barely have accepted a gathering of a few dozen “long-haired freaks.” Playing before tens of thousands of people who saw themselves as cultural and political outcasts, his version incorporated the stylings of music from the era and asserted that Woodstock attendees were Americans too.
Hendrix probably never meant to connect the national anthem with the Vietnam War.
In 1967, Hendrix’s band, the Experience, participated in a U.S. Army public radio spot that urged young Americans to enlist. He told the Dutch magazine Kink in 1967 that Americans were “fighting in Vietnam for the complete free world.”
“As soon as they move out, they’ll be at the mercy of the communists,” Hendrix added. “For that matter, the yellow danger [China] should not be underestimated. Of course, war is horrible, but at present, it’s still the only guarantee to maintain peace.”
On January 9, 1969, according to the Rough Guide to Jimi Hendrix, he dedicated a show to the “American Deserters Society” while in Stockholm, Sweden. That appears to be as far as Hendrix went in openly opposing the war.
Regardless of Hendrix’s intentions, it will forever retain an ambiguity that is apolitical and political, idealistic and sober, and liberating as well as haunting.
The hundreds of thousands of people who came together had as much of a right to define the trajectory of the United States as the officials in President Richard Nixon’s administration, who were dividing people and killing people abroad. That is the liberating aspect of Hendrix’s “Star Spangled Banner.”
On the other hand, there is a pervasive sense that Woodstock (or a Woodstock-like moment) could never happen again. Nostalgia consistently gives way to fear of never achieving such grandeur and fosters a distrust in humanity. The demons we hear in the piercing chords of Hendrix’s guitar will continue to prevail if we let fear win.