Jimi Hendrix; a Performance of a Lifetime


Aug. 18, 1969.  The biggest show Upstate New York had ever seen. Woodstock.  Teens from all over the country gathered and camped in tents in the pouring rain to see some of the most legendary performances the world has ever seen. Many wrote lyrics about peace, spreading love, and taking drugs, but this day was different from the others in the festival. 

This was the day Jimi Hendrix performed.

Jimi Hendrix, a legendary guitarist at the time, had a different performance on this day.  In fact, a very controversial one.   The first seven songs of the setlist rocked.  It wasn’t until the eighth song that things started to get interesting.

Jimi told the crowd he was going to play the star-spangled banner on the guitar.  The crowd roared in excitement thinking it was going to be the typical melody but just played on the guitar.  Boy were they wrong.  Jimi roared with the guitar emulating violent sounds of war while still playing the melody of the Star-Spangled Banner.  He used feedback from the stage monitors to create distortion effects while slamming on the whammy bar to modulate the sounds of what seemed to be people screaming and planes crashing.  The entire performance was so sonically descriptive, it was as if one could see the scene playing like a war movie in front of his or her eyes.  Chaos vibrated on the strings of Jimi’s guitar and through the thousands of cones within the giant wall of sound behind him.  This lined up with the events happening in Vietnam at the time.  The Cold War tensions of Russia and the United States remained tightly wound and conflicts such as the Vietnam War caused Americans to think a nuclear war was imminent.

After the event, people of all backgrounds sent Jimi mail about what they thought about his performance. Many of these messages were negative letters written by former veterans and families of veterans.  Jimi was questioned about the performance in an interview with Dick Cavett and elaborated that he just played the song in the way that he wanted to perform it.  He didn’t put much thought into the performance unlike many of his fans did and actually thought it was beautiful and had a vibe at the moment.

Although many may think that any performance of the Star-Spangled Banner that is a different perspective than the original is disrespectful, I think the performance Jimi Hendrix presented was insightful.  While our country promotes freedom of speech, Jimi showed that freedom of expression is equally important.  Despite the fact that it was a controversial situation, there is no arguing that it was also real.  These things were happening at the moment, so I think that expressing them was a good thing to do.  People definitely wanted to escape the reality of the world at the time, but I feel that without someone expressing what was going on, the music would have just seemed like a mere distraction.

Although Jimi Hendrix saw a lot of backlash from his performance, many people didn’t know he was in the military himself.  This simple fact changes everything about what anybody may have thought about his opinions towards his own performance.  I often wonder, did he see his own country as a war machine with expendable citizens at its disposal, or was he simply just saddened by the casualties in Vietnam?  What was his purpose for playing this in front of his biggest performance yet?  I would like to believe it was his way of expressing his thoughts about the current conflict through the use of his favorite instrument.

Nobody may know the feelings he truly had towards his performance or what he was thinking when he was creating the piece, but what is beautiful is that because it is a piece of music, we will have the ability to ponder on it for as long as we wish.  But along with discussing the situation, I believe the discussion of the normalization of expression should be encouraged and the dismissal of discussing particular controversial topics should be closely watched.  After all, had Jimi Hendrix and other artists not been able to have the platform to express their ideas in their performances, many people may not have thought so deeply about those current situations.