Few performances in the history of rock ‘n’ roll are more iconic than when Jimi Hendrix delivered the show of his career on the biggest stage of them all; headlining the inaugural Woodstock Festival in 1969.
In a show jam packed with culturally significant songs, perhaps the most poignant moment in the set when Hendrix rolled out his unexpected performance of the US national anthem.
The historic and groundbreaking event was held from August 15–18 in 1969, hosted on Max Yasgur’s dairy farm in Bethel, New York. Originally billed as ‘An Aquarian Exposition: 3 Days of Peace & Music’ but people instead just referred to it simply as the Woodstock Rock Festival. The first edition of the festival attracted a mammoth audience size of more than 400,000 who flocked to the fields on the East Coast for the bash.
For the whole weekend, the weather was torrential. If the event was held in modern-day it would have almost certainly been cancelled due to health and safety measures which were seemingly an afterthought back in 1969.
The first day of the festival welcomed a remarkable headline set from a six-months pregnant Joan Baez and, with the likes of The Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin and The Who taking all taking to the stage before a headline set from Jefferson Airplane, which began at 8am because of the terrible weather, the Woodstock line-up was jam-packed with now-legendary names.
Hendrix would be the last act of the entire festival and delivered his headline show at 8:30 am on Monday morning, no doubt performing to the most hardcore of festival-goers who had decided not to call it a day early due to the weather as most people did.
The guitar god was the highest-paid artist of the weekend taking home $18,000 for his appearance which, at the time, was a record fee. Perhaps unpredictably, Hendrix delivered a performance that was worth every penny. His distorted version of ‘Star-Spangled Banner’, which is the national anthem of the United States, allowed the musician to make a political statement on the biggest stage of his career.
Hendrix cunningly decided to use the music’s own bombastic nature to project the violence carried out under his nation’s flag. He managed to do this by holding a keynote longer than he usually would and also applied a little more pressure to his Stratocaster’s tremolo bar which then created an unsettling effect, which was more effective than his words could ever be. He then stopped playing the song in its original form and just turned the lyrics about bombs bursting in air and rockets lighting up the night into music.
This was Hendrix’s way of kicking back at the idea of this is what is great about America and through the use of just his instrument, he managed to evoke the opposite feeling of what the anthem was intended to cause and is one of the great political statements in the music’s history.
See the performance, below.