Watch this video of Jimi Hendrix hypnotize the crowd with a rendition of ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ That needs no words.
The version of the National Anthem that exploded out of Jimi Hendrix at Wood-Stock, some 40 years ago changed the song from just a song, to something that really meant something to me. It is possible that if Mr. Hendrix had not impulsively played the anthem in such a beautiful and meaningful way, the song would still be just a song to me.
I did not go to Vietnam, I was not drafted, I easily could have though, I was the exact right age at the time to be drafted in the late ’60’s. Did you know Jimi was a paratrooper? He enlisted in the service at the time, he was not drafted. His feelings about the war changed a lot before he was discharged after breaking an ankle on his 27th paratrooper mission. A war hero if you will. Jimi wrote plenty of songs about Vietnam and killing people, one being ”Machine Gun”. It is a sad song and disturbing if you listen to it and understand what he is saying.
Hendrix plays the opening salute or simultaneous explosion of guitar notes of “The Star Spangled Banner” in the lowest or open position on the guitar neck, using open strings as much as possible, his Univibe rotating effect pedal altering the pitches. Mitch Mitchell is filling in the background with drums, toms and cymbals and builds in free rhythm. Since this was the first time Jimi had performed live with this group of musicians, the band had not been in full synch until Jimi exploded with the beginning of the song, and the crowd went nuts.
Hendrix turns the simple anthem’s melody with dives and articulations like a man who has been deeply affected, a musical description of the words. Only Jimi Hendrix could have turned the songs notes into words.
The beginning of his interpretation is all Jimi, but relatively mild through the first two stanzas, with some perfectly timed trills tacked on. With feedback beginning to move in on the held notes, Hendrix engages the wah pedal to up the ante. He follows the next section line “and the rockets’ red glare ”.. with the howl of a falling bomb and its subsequent explosion, pushing on his Stratocaster’s vibrato bar to its lowest position. Some confusion of sorts follows, lots of screaming voices, machine gun shots, horrible strangled cries, a mother wails in vein. Then the line “the bombs bursting in air”, is followed by an English police siren, some unplaceable sounds of unreality, another bomb attack, twisted metal and bodies, a trickle of blood. “Our flag was still there” leads to a perfect, pure-toned quotation of “Taps”. The final stanza beginning with “Oh say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave” is given a straight treatment but is filtered through manipulation of the pickup toggle switch for effects, with the word “wave” held through successions of fed-back harmonic vibrations and overtones. With a strangled stop, Hendrix resumes with “o’er the land of the free”, with the final note of the line again left for dead to have its fundamental pitch faded out by the feedback decay, and a final bomb’s fall to earth.