Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Jimi Hendrix's "Star-Spangled Banner" at Woodstock

NOTE: This post was originally published midday July 4, 2009. 
C. 7/4/17

Apart from the context, Jimi Hendrix's "Star Spangle Banner" is completely straightforward, a cinch to interpret. The context alone is what gives it its emotional and social complexity. That complexity also gives the piece more power than it already has, and it has quite a bit.


Although his is an instrumental version, Hendrix's interpretation remains tied directly to the lyrics. The music divides into large sections, the first being a virtuosic but faithful rendition of the melody for the opening four lines:

Oh say can you see, by the dawn's early light
what so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming
Whose broad stripes and bright stars, through the perilous fight
o'er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming

Each pair of lines forms a complete musical phrase in the anthem. In these first two phrases, not much happens in Hendrix's playing in a pictorial sense. The occasional feedback and shifts of timbre, together with Mitch Mitchell's free-form drumming far in the background, feed into the creation of a "perilous" atmosphere, a sense of danger permeates the moment, offering a hint of what's to come.

I need to point out here that the constantly shifting timbre of the guitar is a hallmark of Hendrix's style. In addition to coaxing feedback--particularly as a kind of punctuation at the ends of musical phrases--he also makes near-constant use of the wah-wah pedal and the tone switch and level controls on the face of the Stratocaster guitar, any of which can instantly or slowly change the sound from a spitting bright sound to a half-swallowed dark sound and everything in between. The so-called "whammy bar", which allows him to loosen or tighten all of the strings at once with a single hand motion, adds to this effect by allowing him a wild vibrato, pitch bends and other effects.

Hendrix's virtuosic style is also marked by his ability to be anywhere on the neck of the guitar instantaneously. This is a technique that originates with the old Delta blues players, who would have a bass line going on the low frets alternating with a melody on the high frets, leaping back and forth fast enough to make both sound continuous. Hendrix uses this to give his playing a wild character, a sense both of fullness in the arrangement and a sense that you never know where the next sound is going to come from.

From the perspective of those style characteristics, it's remarkable how plain these two quatrains are. The first is merely the melody, without any decoration other than feedback and the pulsing of what sounds like a stereo vibrato effect. In the second, Hendrix elaborates the melody by sustaining a few notes and by adding some others in a kind of mimicry of a classical music approach. The elaborations add a flamboyant, swelling grandeur that probably has to be interpreted as at least slightly mocking. I say that reluctantly because I don't think Hendrix's version is in any way a satirical rendition. Its heartfelt and of the moment. But the moment included poking a little fun at conventions of the "squares".

But now, in the second section: this is where the thing really begins to fly.

And the rockets red glare, the bombs bursting in air
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there

In the video, you can see Hendrix powering into this section. In the first verse, he's fussing with the tuning keys and the knobs of his guitar, idly watching his fingers or looking out over the audience. Clearly, this kind of playing he doesn't have to think too much about. As he gets close to this verse however, his whole posture changes: suddenly he races up to his pedals, his neck and spine bend forward slightly and he begins to radiate a raw physicality. From this point on, his hands barely leave the guitar, his facial expressions vary from meditative to intensely expressive. The guitar itself now travels up and down, elegantly changing position relative to the player as if partners in a pas de deux.

Using all the stylistic traits I mentioned above – the whammy bar, feedback, the effects pedals and covering the full expanse of the neck of the guitar – he creates bursts of sound after each half of the first line of this couplet. Repeatedly, he slides up from the bottom of the neck on the low strings, to get a swooping sound, and the open strings of the guitar, to get a smashing dissonant chord. After the second line in particularly he gets momentarily caught up in tightening the whammy bar and letting it out slowly, ending the fall with a crash of open strings.

These aren't the simple elaborations of the first verse but instead form a full-blown, well-balanced collage, divided in half by the playing of the melody for "the bombs bursting in air." The sounds here describe the text with imitations of the sounds of war: Bombs dropping, searing explosions of various types. Scraps of the earlier melody appear as well, altered but recognizable, as if not to let us forget that where we are is a violent nightmare version of where we came from.

For the fourth line of this quatrain, Hendrix simply reasserts the melody, immediately resuming his slightly distracted, almost bored physical poster. But before moving on, he pauses to salute the flag with an excerpt from the military bugle call, Taps. Hendrix served in the army and understood that Taps signals the close of day and, as such, is played at funerals to honor the service of the deceased, now at rest. The inserted melody serves as a stark transition into the final couplet.

Oh say does that Star-Spangled Banner yet wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

In the first of these two lines, he uses a mandolin style plucking as a kind of drum roll version of the melody, echoed by an actual drum roll from Mitchell. He also uses this section to reflect back a little on the feedback and collage of the middle section. With a dramatic pause, he launches into the last line, given an appropriate grandeur with some elaboration reminiscent of the earlier section, including a final bomb-drop whammy bar and crash. Three chords then form a dramatic final cadence, a grand ceremonial gesture.

The complexity of the context is easily apparent to anyone who lived through the era. Hendrix could be both proud and critical of his country at the same time. Many of us were. He could also be using protest as a marketing gimmick, playing to his young hippie audience. All of that at once is probably true. For those who don't get it, I'll try to explain a little in a later post.


UPDATE 2 ON VIDEO CLIP: I updated the link in the body copy so that it works right now. This clip too, could go away, and if it does, see the instruction in last year's update, below.
--C. 7/4/17

UPDATE 1 ON VIDEO CLIP: The video I had originally embedded involved one of the camera angles used in the opening composite of shots shown in the final version of the film "Woodstock," by Martin Scorcese. It was a YouTube video which was, unfortunately, subsequently removed, probably for copyright concerns. The link above is the same clip on Vimeo. If you want, you can still find this alternate camera angle through various sources, including the DVD of Hendrix at Woodstock: it offers a view of the performance from in front of the performer and from his right side, clearly showing the body language I described below. 
--C. 7/4/16


  1. Great blog which I have linked to my facebook page.

    Hendrix would have known Taps having heard it every evening while serving in the US Army. The meaning of the bugle call, certainly as the lights-out and funeral honor, is well known to every member of our armed forces. That he interpolated it into his version of the anthem was a stroke of genius and a salute to those who served.

    Jari Villanueva

  2. Here is a version with 3 feedback distortion guitars. Sounds like Jimi x 3 : http://youtu.be/-wcNiCwMHCk