By Lauren Kelley (’22)
When Jimi Hendrix performed “The Star Spangled Banner” with screeches and static at the 1969 Woodstock Music Festival, it was considered by some to be “a hate-filled guitar solo”(Clague, 461). In the year leading up to the festival, the national anthem had become a staple in music icon’s setlist and his rendition was an obvious critique of the state of America. The “Star Spangled Banner” is one of the many symbols of patriotism revered by Americans, and this performance is a hallmark in the canon of debate surrounding how much license the people have over their patriotism. Hendrix’s ability to peacefully protest the United States– his home– through his version of the “Star Spangled Banner” swept him into the powerful current of social changemakers.
The 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. changed America, and music was not immune to that shift. Hendrix began performing the “Star Spangled Banner” in 1968 at various concerts only a few months before King’s April 4 assassination, and his creative rendition immediately made headlines. Historian Mark Clague argues, “if Hendrix ever musically burned the US anthem in protest, the Portland Banner (performed on 9 September 1968) may offer his most devastating realization. Its opening phrase shakes and closes with cries that prefigure Woodstock, disintegrating into full explosions after the word ‘gleaming’” (Clague, 446). Hendrix spoke openly about his process in creating his rendition of the “Banner”: “I still love America—quite naturally—but I can see why people put it down. It has so much good in it, you know, but it has so much evil, too” (Clague, 446). His “Banner” was the thesis of his political thought.
At the time, music was a prevalent method of political commentary. The irony and insult of the Vietnam War as another form of segregation and oppression of the Black community was an obvious qualm. In “The Vietnam War: A History in Song” Justin Brummer reflects,
King pressed home the relationship between Vietnam and the Civil Rights Movement, pointing to the ‘cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same school room’, as well as the killing of ‘little brown Vietnamese children’. King was not the first person to express this view. Nina Simone released ‘Backlash Blues’ in March 1967:
You send my son to Vietnam
You give me second-class houses and second-class schools.
Do you think that all the coloured folks are just second-class fools? (Brummer, 1)
Hendrix’s “Banner” supported this critique. Having served himself in the early years of the Vietnam War, he had seen the segregation of military units firsthand, and his witness to this prejudice was later on punctuated during a military tour with his band (Clague, 444). He was rightfully dismayed. However, Jimmy Jack’s “Battle of Vietnam” also aligned with his views on the war, in which he supported the fight against communism (Brummer, 1). Thus, Hendrix’s style of political protest, on platforms that supported both the civil rights movement and the war, makes his performance widely accessible as anyone could find their own critique of America ambiguously within the “Banner”.
Although music was often politicized, the Woodstock Festival of 1969 rests in musical lore as a moment of peace amidst the political turmoil of the 1960s and ‘70s. The concert featured performers like Janis Joplin and the Grateful Dead, but the final act belonged to Jimi Hendrix (Farrel, 1). There was a breezy tranquility to the festival dichotomous to the typically tense air Americans were breathing those days. This scene of people simply enjoying music resonated with all participants. Rexford Benoit concluded, “Woodstock was not a revolution, it was a rest” (Benoit, 1). The “Star Spangled Banner,” then, would be the alarm clock to this apolitical slumber.
Hendrix was the closing act at Woodstock, and he delivered. His “Star Spangled Banner” remains the most important and best-remembered moment of the concert. In an article celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the concert, Douglas Brinkley spent generous time discussing the impact of Hendrix’s “Banner” performance. He argued that it transcended the concert and was of far greater importance than any other number performed that weekend: “It was a lesson in being an American in 1969. Bending notes and sculpting feedback to mimic bombs bursting in air, at one point dropping in the funereal notes of ‘Taps,’ Hendrix transformed the national anthem into a cry for freedom, peace and ecstasy” (Brinkley, 1). Brinkley argues that the Banner performance at Woodstock should be regarded as not just the showstopping finale to a music festival, but as the pinnacle of 1960s music. The performance jolted spectators out of the apolitical vacuum at the festival and back into the political tumult and the musical styling also took heavy influence from the Vietnam War.
Mark Clague extensively analyzed the composition and resonance of Hendrix’s “Banner.” Clague argues that the rendition was irrefutably a commentary on the Vietnam War and the soldiers in active service. Recomposing the anthem and ‘Taps’ into one haunting rendition put the sacrificial acts of the soldiers front and center, just months after the Tet Offensive had swayed public opinion away from total support for the war effort (Clague, 439). Interviews from 1967 show him actively speaking out for the war effort against China (Clague, 442). Therefore, it seems that Hendrix took a patriotic stance on the Vietnam War, but was very aware of the presence of death and destruction in war. Clague forensically analyzes the presence and relevance of “Taps” within the “Banner”: “Hendrix used the same basic slow tempo for both anthem and memorial, suggesting that they were intended as a single haunting statement. Also curious is the fact that the whole ‘the Star Spangled Banner’ quotation was incomplete and included a wrong note, ‘Taps’ was rendered correctly in full. The anthem was fragmented; the bugle call complete” (Clague, 441). Hendrix was making a profound statement with his rendition in essentially eulogizing the fallen soldiers.
Hendrix’s “Banner” has received staunch criticism since its first performance. Pete Johnson wrote that the April 1969 Inglewood performance was, “meaningless and constitutes the cheapest kind of sensationalism” (Clague, 435). The Woodstock performance was called a “‘triumphal deconstruction of the American Dream’” (Clague, 461). Clague, though, argues that the Woodstock rendition “contains a core of hope, that it is a celebration of possibility inspired by the Woodstock Festival itself.” (Clague, 461). Hendrix’s “Banner” is a complicated piece, and each performance was unique, but Woodstock is the pinnacle of the rendition. Clague even argues that the Woodstock Banner performance “succinctly expressed the transformational dreams of the counterculture 1960s, its frustrations and its hopes” (Clague, 461). Despite the allegations by critics, Hendrix’s “Banner” was not an act of treason. It was a statement that the beauty of America was being distorted and even on the way to being destroyed by the issues of the time.
Jimi Hendrix’s rendition of the “Star Spangled Banner,” at Woodstock and beyond, inspired great discourse. But it was not the last of its kind. The narrative of a Black man with a relatively apolitical and national platform using the national anthem as a way to bring attention to national issues continues to make headlines today. In 2017, NFL athlete Colin Kaepernick knelt during the national anthem to protest the mass police killings of Black men. Similarly, his protest was peaceful and inspired more contemplation than violence. Nearly fifty years after Hendrix performed at Woodstock, it remains an uncomfortable truth that America had not realized its ideal. But music is the best medium to share pain, anger, grief, and hope. The “Star Spangled Banner,” then, was the perfect song for Hendrix to siphon his patriotism into notes of constructive criticism for his country.
Lauren Kelly is an honors History major, with a minor in Irish Studies, at the University of Notre Dame. Her article was originally written for Annie Coleman’s American Studies course ‘Twentieth Century America.’
- Benoit, Rexford. “A Respite, Not a Revolution”. Ann Arbor Argus. N.d. shttps://www-rockandroll-amdigital-co-uk.proxy.library.nd.edu/Documents/Detail/ann-arbor-argus-woodstock/1438542?item=1438543
- Brinkley, Douglas. “The Ecstatic Chaos of Woodstock; Fifty Years Later, the Music Festival Remains a Symbol of the 1960s’ Hope and Squalor.” Wall Street Journal (Online), Aug 03, 2019, http://proxy.library.nd.edu/login?url=https://www.proquest.com/newspapers/ecstatic-chaos-woodstock-fifty-years-later-music/docview/2268007705/se-2?accountid=12874
- Brummer, Justin. “The Vietnam War: A History in Song”. History Today. 25 September, 2018. https://www.historytoday.com/miscellanies/vietnam-war-history-song
- Clague, Mark. “‘This is America: Jimi Hendrix’s Star Spangled Banner Journey as Psychedelic Citizenship”. Journal of the Society for American Music. Vol. 8, No. 4, pp 435-478. 2014. https://www-cambridge-org.proxy.library.nd.edu/core/journals/journal-of-the-society-for-american-music/article/this-is-america-jimi-hendrixs-star-spangled-banner-journey-as-psychedelic-citizenship/0029FB312D1A8A9C61C0345C6DB59525
- Farrell, E William Special to The New,York Times. “19-HOUR CONCERT ENDS BETHEL FAIR: PRODUCER SAYS TOWN HAS ASKED FESTIVAL TO RETURN QUIET RETURNS TO BETHEL AS A 19-HOUR CONCERT CLOSES ROCK FAIR.” New York Times (1923-), Aug 19, 1969. http://proxy.library.nd.edu/login?url=https://www.proquest.com/historical-newspapers/19-hour-concert-ends-bethel-fair/docview/118568319/se-2?accountid=12874.