Few performances in the history of rock ‘n’ roll are more iconic than when Jimi Hendrix cemented his legendary status and delivered the show of his career on the biggest stage of them all, a moment when the mercurial artist headlined the inaugural Woodstock Festival in 1969.
The whole weekend was a watershed moment for music, but one specific part was the most poignant of all. As the subversive edge of America’s youth descended upon a small town, with fear of crime and panic sweeping the outer limits, Hendrix paid tribute to his country.
One of the most enigmatic performances of the weekend came when Hendrix rolled out an unexpected, distorted rendition of the US national anthem. The performance was considered as an offensive moment and it sent a ripple through America and when he appeared on the Dick Cavett show some months after his headline show — he had to answer why he made this statement on such a grand stage.
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. With a guitar in his hands, he 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 military power being the only thing that 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 history.
“I don’t know, man,” Hendrix said on his decision to play the track before adding, “I’m an American, so I played it. They made me sing it in school, so it was a flashback.” Cavett then points out that Hendrix is likely to find himself on the receiving end of a barrage of hate mail because of his decision to cover the national anthem in an unorthodox manner, to which Hendrix proudly stated, “It’s not unorthodox, I thought it was beautiful.”
Cavett would later reflect on the interview years later and said that he should have supported Hendrix’s version rather than opening him up for criticism: “I suppose I could have added that since we somehow acquired the most dismal, virtually unsingable dirge of a national anthem of any known nation, we should decorate Hendrix for turning it into music.”
Soak in the Woodstock moment as well as Hendrix’s appearance on The Dick Cavett Show, below.