Monday, July 4, 2011

Why "Star-Spangled Banner" comes out best from a Marshall stack

Any classic rock fan, rock guitar fan, psychedelia fan- or heck, music fan ought to know about Jimi Hendrix's impromptu rendition of "Star-Spangled Banner" from the Woodstock Festival.

To me, this is the best, most definitive version. Why do I think that?

I think that because, in my opinion, it expresses the American spirit better than any other version.
Think about it: This rendition is about as unconventional as you can get. And what is more American than rebellion against oppression? The United States is founded on saying "You can't tell us what to do!" Hendrix didn't follow the rules of conventional music.
Hendrix himself, in a way, defied the normal definition of what constitutes as "uncoventional" on the Dick Cavett Show, Sept. 9, 1969:
Dick Cavett: ...When you mention the national anthem and talk about playing it in an unorthodox way, you immediately get a guaranteed percentage of hate mail from people--
Hendrix: It's not unorthodox, it's not unorthodox.
Cavett: It's not unorthodox?
Hendrix: No no, I thought it was beautiful.
So it's clear here- it stands to reason, anyway- that Hendrix didn't intend anything unpatriotic- it was an expression of how he felt about the song. The wailing feedback, unprecedented vibrato arm technique, screeching Octavia, wah pedal and unexpected forays into sheer dissonance wasn't meant as a destruction of the song.

The electric guitar, in of itself, should be considered a symbol of America. Although the claims to its invention are various and unclear, the guitarist Les Paul and the manufacturer Rickenbacker are usually credited to solidifying the concept. Leo Fender, the founder of Fender guitars, finalized the solidbody guitar, and invented the world-famous Stratocaster- Hendrix's favorite instrument.
Rock 'n' roll music is another American invention, evolving out of musicians speeding up the blues and incorporating elements of boogie woogie, western swing, country, and gospel. The people who first played rock music were faced with a lot of prejudice and hatred, and soon playing and listening to rock music became a form of rebellion- an expression of our natural desire for freedom.
There is also something to be said about Hendrix being a black man: more than just about anybody else, black people suffered unfairly at the hands of ignorant, unsympathetic men, and out of their suffering came the blues and gospel music. When rock 'n' roll came out, black musicians struggled to compete with their white contemporaries.
1969 was a time when black people were finally starting to get equal treatment and a voice in what was meant to be a fully democratic society all along. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated just about a year earlier, so the Civil Rights Movement had reached its peak. Hendrix was expressing his newfound freedom with all of his music, expanding what was possible and conceivable, and brought about the next evolution in rock music.
Hendrix did things on the guitar- and with rock songwriting and production- that very, very few people do even today. Even the wildest and craziest heavy metal bands today don't seem to dare touch what Hendrix tried. Sometimes I get frustrated by this...

Hendrix's interpretation of "Star-Spangled Banner" is also an expression of the hippie movement: Those who were in it for social change instead of the sex and drugs were fighting for a philosophy (among other things) that had been largely forgotten, and that is the plea for freedom by the Founding Fathers.
My dad once told me that he once went around asking for signatures for a petition that included words taken directly from the Constitution and the Gettysburg Address. The conservatives he talked to accused him of being "anti-American", and when he explained where the ideas came from, all they could do was call him a "smarta**".
During the late Sixties, America was in the throes of the Vietnam War. Hendrix's dissonant screams on the guitar are frequently interpreted as being representative of falling bombs and shooting rockets, especially since they follow the words "and the rocket's red glare, the bombs bursting in air". He then follows these with a brief quotation of "Taps", commonly associated with funerals for dead soldiers. The tune originally has lyrics about the day ending and becoming night.
Hendrix never said anything to the contrary, but I doubt this was his intention, although we do know that Hendrix strove for peace and disliked war as much as anybody. He looks like he's enjoying himself too much. But it does prove that his version touched people when many, many Americans felt the pain of going through a brutal war that, in the end, was largely unnecessary. In a way, this harkens back to what the lyrics of "Star-Bangled Banner" mean: through the lights of bombs and rockets, it can be seen that the flag- the symbol of America's independence- still stands. And we still managed to survive the Vietnam War.
If there's any truth to the "bombs and rockets" interpretation, then it expresses both joy and pain. To me, this makes his rendition especially powerful.

Hendrix's version of "Star-Spangled Banner" always reminds me of what the concept and ideology of the United States means to me. This is why I think it's the most American, patriotic version.

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