< American Icons: Jimi Hendrix's Star-Spangled Banner



Friday, November 19, 2010



KURT:  When I think about Woodstock, there are really just a few pieces of music out of the three very long days that most readily come to mind.  One is an over-the-top anti-war satire done by Country Joe and the Fish.  [KURT SINGS] “And it’s one, two, three, what are we fighting for . . .” [SEGUE INTO TRACK, COUNTRY JOE “FIXIN TO DIE RAG”].  Which is pretty much the perfect in your face late-60s humor.

And then there’s this: [PLAY HENDRIX SSB FROM “OH SAY DOES THAT SSB YET WAVE”].  Jimi Hendrix’s performance of the national anthem.  Even four decades later that guitar solo still resonates – intense, visceral, maybe maddening, maybe heartbreaking.  Today in American Icons, Studio 360’s David Krasnow tries to decode the message Hendrix left us. 


DAVID KRASNOW: Michael William Doyle was too young to attend Woodstock.  But he’s been thinking about it ever since.  [music in] He teaches courses on the 1960s at Ball State University, in Indiana.


DOYLE:  My brother was a DJ for AM radio station in Winona Minnesota 69-70 and they signed off their station every night with the Star Spangled Banner.




DOYLE: And one night I was in there with some friends and I said to him, you know it's time to close up, and I said, "Hey I got and idea, why don't you play Hendrix's version of the Star Spangled Banner and just see what happens." So he was game for it. This is at midnight, small town Minnesota 1970.  And within minutes the station manager who was awakened from sleep called my brother and told him that he was going to face firing over this that his phone had been ringing off the hook with people who were calling to complain that he’d played that version probably most of the people that were calling to complain had never heard that song before, doubtful they'd ever heard of Jimi Hendrix.




But they knew when they heard that song that there had been a rupture in something that was considered to them to be sacred.


Tara Key:  It's already like oozing with chaos because the notes are bending and they're threatening to go somewhere else he's letting them swell.



David Krasnow: That's Tara Key she's a guitarist who leads the band Antietam.


TK:  And it's like already like starting to dive bomb he's holding the pressure points of the buttons that everybody gets pushed when they're listening at the sports event and it actually means something to them.


Vernon Reid:  To find the blues in it, to pull the blues out of it, that’s one of the things Jimi did.


DK: Vernon Reid he's best known for the bang Living Color.



VR:  On a level he brought the mortar fire to the mix


TK:  I think he was just like really so key in making his guitar not sound like a guitar, making it be like a conduit for a million other sounds and I think he really more than anybody like kinda brought that right in the front door. 




VR: And for people that heard it, it was, for some people it was this awesome kind of bit of truth telling and for other people it was this confrontational critique

You know Jimi Hendrix was almost like a representative of everything that the establishment was afraid of.

DK: How so? 

VR:  He was kind of sexually dynamic African American male playing very, very loud rock and roll guitar.  

VR:  He's the kind of person that I think that mainstream America of that time was afraid their daughters was gonna go home with.  You know, "dad I want you to meet someone, he plays guitar."  Yikes!



DICK CAVETT: This man was in the 101st Airborn so when you write your nasty letters n...

JIMI: Nasty letters?

CAVETT: When you mention the National Anthem and talk about playing it in any unorthodox way, you immediately get a guaranteed percentage of hate mail from people who say how dare anyone...

JIMI: It’s not unorthodox.  It’s not unorthodox. 

CAVETT: It isn’t unorthodox?

JIMI: No. no.  I thought it was beautiful.  But there you go. 


VR: And it was interesting to see him on the Dick Cavett show and Dick Cavett was asking him about it and Jimi, I think, genuinely was like what?  I mean he's thing was like all, I'm an American.


MORE CLIP JIMI ON CAVETT:  I don’t know man, all I did was play it I’m an American, so I played it.  I used to have to sing it in school, they made me sing it in school so... it was a flash back.

DK ON TAPE: You think that was genuine?  Cause its hard to tell looking at him there, was he messing with Dick Cavett, or?

VR:  I think a lot in that interview he messes with Dick Cavett but I don't think when he refers to the Star Spangled Banner, his performance of it when he says I thought it was beautiful, I don't think he's being disingenuous.  [WIND CRIES MARY IN] He was sincerely in the moment that he was in.  


Reuben Jackson:  I think there was an assumption that young guy coming up, part of this generation, you know we all think alike. Well he didn’t. 


DK: Reuben Jackson is a music scholar who’s written a lot about Jimi Hendrix.


RJ:  There are instances in which Hendrix said well he was in favor of the war because he made some reference in an interview to the Domino Theory, you know and that if we don’t stop the Communists this will happen, this will happen, and this will happen.


DK: The Domino Theory was pretty much what LBJ thought too, if we don’t stop the Communists here, where will we stop them?  Unlike most of the flower children at Woodstock, Jimi had already been in the armed forces, he was discharged honorably (although sleeping with his guitar was not considered really good soldiering).   He actually played with one of his army buddies, Billy Cox at Woodstock.  Jimi, at least, did not think his anthem was unpatriotic. 


DK: Here’s Michael Doyle, the historian. 


MD:  He was asked about that shortly after the festival and this is his cryptic response.


MD:  “Nowadays we don't play it to take away all the greatness that America is supposed to have, we play it the way the air is in America today.  The air is slightly static.”  


VR:  It's like the zeitgeist had vomited up this moment, this thing.  

But it was also the soundtrack of a country tearing itself apart in the real time. [PROTEST SOUNDS] 

The sound of demonstrations and peoples neck veins sticking out and people screaming at each other from across the ideological divide.  

MD:  That phrase they used “bring the war home” is exactly what you could say Hendrix was doing in the Star Spangled Banner performance.  



DK: So was Jimi just reflecting the times, playing “the static in the air”?  On the one hand, he wasn’t known for making political statements.  On the left he was actually thought of as kind of a lightweight.  A critic once called him “a psychedelic Uncle Tom.”  But on the other hand -- in the Star-Spangled Banner, it sure sounds like Jimi Hendrix has got something to get off his chest. 




RJ:  I remember after Hendrix died there was an obit in Rolling Stone and the writer referred to the performance of Star Spangled Banner and he said when he got to the phrase the land of the free that sustained note was like a scream of black rage.



RJ: I thought wow, you could certainly have interpreted it that way but that rage was everywhere.


DK: Again, Reuben Jackson. 


RJ:  Could you see it as a blues, you know a lament, a question, a searing series of questions?  I would say yes.

I'm not talking in terms of scales necessarily pentatonic scales or flatted thirds etc but I would say it was a blues in the broadest emotional poetic thematic sense.  The blues as conduit for whatever is happening, you know whether it's you know on a more personal level your baby left you or your blues for or about your country which is going through some issues as they say in therapy. 


DK: America in the '60s definitely had issues.  But Michael Doyle takes it much farther back, all the way to the beginning of American history.  He compares Jimi’s anthem to a sermon.  A kind of diatribe that Puritan ministers used to deliver – something called, a jeremiad. 

MD:  The jeremiad sermon based on the prophet Jeremiah, calls people to task for their failings. 


DK: And this was never really something you wanted to hear. 


MD: And there's always this vague threat that if they fail to restore the fervor, the commitment to these larger principles, they believe that it was God given, that catastrophe awaits them.  And I feel that you could say that Hendrix’s playing of Star Spangled Banner, is the oral equivalent of a jeremiad for 1969 in America.


VR:  You know, when he gets to the rockets red glare, he’s setting the rockets off

You know when Francis Scott Key came up with the words I mean he was in the stockade and there was like a mortar attack [POST AND FADE]  and he literally saw this battle and that's the thing about Star Spangled Banner, is that we divorce it from the actual event it describes.


DK: And that’s the thing.  When we sing the national anthem we tend to forget – it’s not about baseball, or parades, or spacious skies or amber waves of grain either.  The song is about war.  A forgotten war, but still.  This country was born in war and we’ve been fighting wars ever since, and Jimi Hendrix’s “Star-Spangled Banner” doesn’t let you forget that. 


RJ:  I think you can be quote patriotic and acknowledge the degree of violence that well this country was founded in my opinion of violence, with you know the Native Americans etc, and I think its saying well, this is our song, and America's like a house with many rooms, and some of the rooms have some blood on the walls.




DK: These days most Americans have come to acknowledge or accept the blood on our walls.  We don’t have the kind of massive protests that marked the 1960s. 


I asked Tara Key, the guitarist from Antietam, to take Jimi’s Star-Spangled Banner and make her own version of it for the times that we're living in right now.  You can hear in her version that America holds a very different place in the world.  Not so much the colossal, superpower.  More vulnerable and  struggling to meet the challenges in front of us.


TK:  I mean everybody wants to make it work but it's just like the way is hard to find a unity about now so, I just think in this time you go inside and you find the way to give your best from internally you have to start from within now to find a way to be a good citizen and to help make it work.


DK: Instead of a scream of rage against America, what Tara played sounds  . . . a little like an elegy.  Melancholy – but loving.  And I think a little bit hopeful. 


Produced by:

David Krasnow


Emily Botein


Stephen Reader