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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

“Black kids think the music is white now, which it isn’t,” Hendrix said. “… The argument is not between black and white; that’s just another game the establishment set up to turn us against one another. … The easy thing to cop out with is saying black and white. That’s the easiest thing. … But now to get to the nitty-gritty; it’s getting to be old and young — not the age, but the ways of thinkin’. Old and new, actually. … most people are sheep. This is the truth, isn’t it? That’s why we have the form of the Black Panthers and some sheep under the Ku Klux Klan. They are all sheep.”

One thing is clear: Hendrix was no one’s sheep. Despite being kicked out of the 101st Airborne Division for reasons that range from being uncontrollable and requiring constant supervision to his feigning having homosexual fantasies, he still remained patriotic. And when pressed, he remained in tune with blacks, including the Black Panthers.

“I naturally feel a part of what they are doing,” Hendrix told an interviewer. “But everybody has their own way of saying things. They get justified as they justify others, you know; in their attempts to get personal freedom. That’s all it is.”

According to biographers, Hendrix dedicated songs to soldiers on both sides of the revolution — those fighting for peace and those fighting in Vietnam jungles.

Pete Townshend, the legendary guitarist of The Who, got it right when he told Hendrix biographer Charles Shaar Murray that Hendrix was too complicated to put in any one category. Townshend, who admitted his own discomfort around black musicians and the blues, said Hendrix was angry and once called him “a honkie” after a backstage spat.

“He’d been in the black milieu as the sideman for this musician and that musician, and this was his chance to not only draw himself out of the mire of mediocrity but also do something for the black cause,” Townshend said. “… There was a tremendous sense of him choosing to play in the white arenas, that he was coming along and saying, ‘You’ve taken this, Eric Clapton and Mr. Townshend, you think you’re a showman. This is how we do it. This is how we can do it when we take back what you’ve borrowed, if not stolen.’”

Bobby Womack had a different perspective. Hendrix “was tryin’ to fit in on his side of town, but it wasn’t his side of town,” Womack told Murray.

“He needed to be in another place … man, when he got to Europe he got with people that was like him, they was his family. I was glad that he found a place,” Womack continued. “And then a lot [of] blacks started sayin’ how it’s terrible that he had to go the white side to make it … All these [black] people would come out of the woodwork: ‘He worked for me and I kicked him out.’”

With Hendrix, there’s no telling what was fact or fiction. But on that morning, when Woodstock was winding down, Hendrix brought a raucous, debauched crowd to a patriotic halt.

“It was the most electrifying moment of Woodstock, and it was probably the single greatest moment of the sixties,” gushed New York Post pop critic Al Aronowitz. “You finally heard what the song was about, that you can love your country but hate your government.”

A little more than a year after Woodstock, Hendrix died in London under mysterious circumstances. He was 27 years old.