40 years later, Woodstock remains a national anthem

Howard Manly | 8/19/2009, 5:57 a.m.
Jimi Hendrix is shown in an undated photo. The legendary guitarist delivered his blistering rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at Woodstock 40 years ago this week. AP

Of all the muddy, drug-fueled images of Woodstock, none stands out more than Jimi Hendrix playing “The Star-Spangled Banner.” It was an eerie solo delivered on the morning of Aug. 18, 1969, complete with amplified feedback designed to mimic the sounds of falling bombs and screaming jets, speeding ambulances and human anguish.

That Woodstock became an iconic symbol of the nation’s angst over the Vietnam War and a generation’s rejection of mainstream values is a matter of little debate. But it remains a mystery that Hendrix would play the national anthem that Monday morning to a crowd that had thinned to about 40,000 from the estimated half-million who ventured to upstate New York. Scheduled to perform at 11 p.m. on Sunday night, Hendrix didn’t make it to the stage until about 8 a.m. the next day.

Hendrix had played the song countless times before, including at the Royal Albert Hall in London and the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles. But at Woodstock, the rendition took on an entirely different meaning. To some conservative critics, the distorted version of the national anthem was tantamount to heresy.

Shortly after the concert, Dick Cavett, one of the most popular talk show hosts of the 1960s, asked Hendrix about the controversy.

“I don’t know, man,” Hendrix replied. “All I did was play it. I’m American, so I played it. I used to sing it in school. They made me sing it in school, so it was a flashback.”

Cavett quickly interrupted the interview and suggested that Hendrix’s version was “unorthodox.”

Hendrix respectfully disagreed.

“I didn’t think it was unorthodox,” he said. “I thought it was beautiful.”

Beautiful or not, it was clearly American — at least to Hendrix.

“We’re all Americans,” Hendrix said during a press conference three weeks after Woodstock. “… It was like, ‘Go America.’ We play it the way the air is in America today. The air is slightly static, see.”

Part of that static was the nation’s complicated history on race. At the time, Hendrix was the only black musician with an enormous white following. Though he performed for years throughout the Deep South, in the mostly black clubs dubbed the “Chitlin’ Circuit,” as a sideman with the likes of Little Richard and the Isley Brothers, Hendrix had to go to London to establish himself as a solo artist.

When he returned, with millions of mostly white rock ‘n’ roll fans enthusiastically considering him one of their own, he was not as embraced by the black community, in part because Hendrix was a reluctant spokesman for black causes.

He spoke with his guitar.

According to biographer Charles R. Cross, Hendrix was suspicious of all analyses that saw race as the eye of America’s hurricane. And he was more suspicious still of black organizations that sought to recruit him, particularly the Black Panthers, a group that Hendrix considered to be prone to violence.

In an interview with David Henderson, author of the biography “’Scuse Me While I Kiss the Sky,” Hendrix got right to the point.