Jimi Hendrix’s “Star-Spangled Banner”: The Epitome of the Countercultural Experience
The face of a changing generation through the lens of music and the musical experience
Drawing from the pivotal 1969 Woodstock Festival, this piece seeks to manifest the utopian ideals of the counterculture’s strivings for social, political, economic, and epistemological transformations beginning with its predecessor mass movement during the Summer of Love in 1967. Concurrently with the postmodernist movement in the redefining of art and performance, psychedelic music provided a new front for explorations of communal and personal identity in line with the New Left and Liberalism political movements as well as a fresh aesthetic that made room for subversive experimentations of drug use and sexual freedom. Psychedelia incorporated a more inclusive worldview as well as a large-scale congregation of like-minded people as a critique of the status quo with regard to commodification, commercialism, industrialization, creative censorship, ethnocentrism, and other such modus operandi for the systematic regulation of mainstream discourse and its agendas.
With the help of propositions made by important figures like Aldous Huxley, Ken Kesey, and Timothy Leary, lysergic acid diethylamide became associated with the countercultural movement and is regarded as the main component in the development of the Hippie aesthetic and musical style, with artists recreating the hallucinogenic “trip” through the medium of sound. The drug and its subsequent drug culture served to unite musician with audience and music with sensorial experience. Thus, we see the utilization of music as a tool for the propagation of ideas, desires, and simulation of different states of mind with the goal of “expanding the mind” within a particular community whilst taking into account the historical context in which it functions. We can see that the counterculture saw new meaning in music and revolutionized the musical experience through the creation of communities on the basis of a fundamental philosophy and the pronounced integrality of musical and communal aesthetic with social and political aims.
In light of the new approaches to the musical experience through the development of psychedelic music and the countercultural movement of the late 1960s, Woodstock proved to be a pivotal event in the history of rock music. It was a revolutionary organized event that assimilated a massive crowd of over 400,000 people, most of which were young and energetic hippies, for a history-making three-day music festival that was headlined by many popular musicians and bands at the time. Jimi Hendrix’s significant influence on the countercultural music scene also called into question issues of race and Black presence in a music scene dominated by White musicians and audience, especially since Hendrix decided last minute to assimilate and perform with an all-black band at Woodstock. The musician’s recollection of his own performance of the “Star-Spangled Banner” at Woodstock mirrors the tumultuous balance of the racial struggle that was in full swing at the time. Jimi Hendrix’s position in juxtaposition with the Black Power movement is ultimately one of social and political subversion whether he was conscious of it or not. Thus, for my case study I will focus on Jimi Hendrix and the Band of Gypsies’ closing performance, specifically on Hendrix’s legendary rendition of the nation’s anthem, the “Star-Spangled Banner,” and how his solo is a symbolic reflection of the era’s shared experience of the Vietnam War draft, peace protests, political critique, and motivated cultural changes as well as the grappling of the racial divide that pervaded the nation.
The countercultural context and Woodstock
Timothy Leary coined the phrase “turn on, tune in, drop out” – a concise motto that demonstrates the essence of the counterculture. The motto is a call out to higher forms of consciousness and thought and is derived from Eastern philosophy introduced by the Beats. The central philosophy that drove the countercultural movement was to regain sovereignty of the mind and body through the utilization of an anti-Establishment agenda that provided liberation from traditional cultural norms and points of view. The counterculture possessed an all-encompassing desire for social change that incorporated the Second Wave feminist movement, transcultural impact of Zen Buddhism and religions of the East, and concern for environmental and ecological damage caused by the consequential marriage between mankind and modernized industry, and functioned in tandem with postmodernist thought and the bohemian lifestyle.
With the postmodernist movement on a blazing trail in major metropolitan areas like Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, London, Paris, and Berlin, it comes as no surprise that the medium of music was utilized by the new generation of avant-garde artists. Art was no longer exclusive to a group of technical elitists but rather an open platform that allowed for the exploration of the artist’s self, environment, and perspective in terms of socio-political-economic commentary in an age of shifting cultural tides. Major movements in art including Fluxus and Neo-Dada incorporated performance art, setting, music or sound, as well as non-discriminate participation of all parties involved, eliminating the physical and psychosocial boundaries that separated the artist and his or her artwork from the receiving audience. These spontaneous and often improvised events were called “happenings.” The central idea of the happening was to renounce the notion of spectatorship and include the audience in the fabrication of the performance or artwork through a free-for-all approach, liberating both artist and audience from temporal, egotistic, and interpretative limitations.
The San Francisco Music Tape Center began synchronizing technology and set with music and performance, exploring experimental music that began with John Cage’s “noise” music. The San Francisco Music Tape Center also held “trip concerts,” making San Francisco and in particular the Haight-Ashbury district a hotspot for up-and-coming musicians and performers seeking to get signed into the blossoming scene. These “trip concerts” became the performance prototype for the Woodstock music festival at the closing of the 1960s, introducing a new musical production that incorporated lights, a stage, and both electronic and acoustic sounds into the production of the musical experience. Thus, the Woodstock Festival can be seen as a well-developed example of a happening. The music that was played at the festival served as the connecting factor between the musician and audience, promoting a particular theme or state of mind that aligned with the countercultural zeitgeist.
Woodstock Festival took place on Max Yasgur’s 600-acre dairy farm in the town of Bethel, New York and ran from August 15 until the morning of August 18, 1969, when Jimi Hendrix and the Band of Gypsies concluded the festival. Originally titled “An Aquarian Exposition: 3 Days of Peace and Music,” Woodstock was conceptualized and eventually organized by Michael Lang and Artie Kornfeld, both of who were based in music production and promotion in Brooklyn, New York. The idea behind the festival was to manifest the countercultural philosophies through the sublimation of anti-war sentiment by using the medium of music. A documentary directed by Michael Wadleigh with the same namesake was released the following year in 1970 to commemorate the counterculture, the music, and the affect of the event on the participants and observers. There was never another Woodstock as Yasgur refused to lend out his property the year after, and the city of Bethel had set up regulations to prevent subsequent festivals from taking place within the county’s jurisdiction.
Jimi Hendrix’s rendition of the “Star-Spangled Banner”
Following a long delay due to thunderstorms and problematic time conflicts, Jimi Hendrix and the Band of Gypsies finally performed a long two-hour set Monday morning beginning at 8:30. The crowd of 400,000 had dwindled to about 30,000 remaining stalwart attendees who insisted on catching Hendrix’s live performance. Adorned in a red bandana, white fringe leather jacket, and blue jeans, Jimi Hendrix established himself on stage with a hauntingly patriotic presence, his manner of dress painting a picture of political conflicts occurring under a flag that represented a nation of war-torn opinions and cultural struggles of identity and community. Through the drawn-out, painstakingly pronounced distortions of power chords that simulated sounds of bombs dropping, artillery firing, and perhaps the hinted screams of dying individuals in the midst of an aerial attack, Hendrix tells a first-hand story about the devastating events happening abroad in Vietnam through his rendition of the U.S. national anthem.
In the time span of his musical career Jimi Hendrix played the “Star-Spangled Banner” many times, but his most notable performance of the national anthem was at Woodstock. His solo performance encapsulated the nexus of the 1960s counterculture. Vernon Reid, guitarist of Living Color and co-founder of the Black Rock Coalition, comments on the emotional and psychological authenticity of Hendrix’s performance of the Star Spangled Banner, saying that, “Hendrix tapped into the whole Vietnam experience. He is in it, completely immersed, and it is beyond playing. Even the feedback sounds like people crying and it sounds like napalmed villages… he plugged into something deep, beyond good or bad” (Murray 1991, 23). What made Hendrix’s performance of the “Star-Spangled Banner” at Woodstock different from his other versions of the anthem can be found in the complex relationship between the temporal and geographical context of Woodstock and the dynamic gravitas produced by the psychological synchronization between musician and audience during the live performance.
Hendrix’s performance caused controversial afterthoughts, inducing discussions and soliciting interpretations about possible underlying political intent. Even on the Dick Cavett Show, Mr. Cavett invited Jimi Hendrix onto the show and reflected momentarily on his performance at Woodstock before delving straight to the point, interview style:
Cavett: “What was the controversy about the national anthem and the way you played it?”
Hendrix: “I don’t know, man. All I did was play it. I’m American, and so I played it. I had to sing it in school.”
Cavett: (to audience) “This man was in the 101st Airborne so when you write your nasty letters in…”
Hendrix: “Nasty letters?”
Cavett: “Well when you mention the national anthem and talk about playing it in any unorthodox way, you immediately get a guaranteed percentage of hate mail.”
Hendrix: “That’s not unorthodox. I thought it was beautiful, but then there you go…”
Interview with Jimi Hendrix on the Dick Cavett Show, 1969.
Dick Cavett mentions that the anthem was “unorthodox” in execution, but Hendrix brushes the notion off by stating that it was beautiful and an ordinary aspect of being American. However, his simple answer is not simple at all. In fact, Hendrix’s answer elicits as many questions as the complexity of his performance of the “Star-Spangled Banner.”
Putting things into perspective: Postwar America, 1950s-1960s
The complex issues surrounding Jimi Hendrix’s performance stemmed from a larger discourse with regard to the Vietnam War. Hendrix was drafted at age 19 and undertook basic training while stationed at Fort Ord, California. But he was unreliable as a soldier and preferred to play his guitar rather than attend to more pressing “patriotic” responsibilities. A year later he was discharged from the army and continued to focus on developing his music. In order to understand his contempt for the army and for military involvement of the United States, we must consider some important parts of the history that led up to the culmination of the countercultural movement during the late 1960s in response to the draft and the overall politics that dominated at the time.
The Vietnam War was a consequence of the events following World War II. The Allied nations established the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in 1949 as a mutual agreement to provide defensive measures in the event of national attack by hostile or invading parties. In response to the formation of NATO and the signing of the North Atlantic Treaty, the U.S.S.R. signed the Warsaw Pact in order to exert equivalent political and military authority over its collective satellite Soviet territories in Central and Eastern Europe, separating West Germany and East Germany into what would later be known as the Iron Curtain. Communism came to the table as an issue of conflicting political ideals with Western democracy and capitalism that permeated the larger social sphere of discussion, manifesting in the psychological fears of the arms race and infiltration of military intelligence enacted mainly between the U.S.S.R. and the U.S. and their secondary national parties. Opposition by the eight communist states and the spread of communism into the East would catapult the United States into anti-communist military intervention in countries like Cuba and Vietnam, resulting in the Cuban Missile Crisis (John F. Kennedy) and the Vietnam War (Richard Nixon) respectively. One of the main reasons for the development of the counterculture was to stop U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Hippies, beatniks, and other social advocates congregated in cities, college campuses, and public spaces to participate in nonviolent protests of the mandatory military draft. Jimi Hendrix himself was a pacifist, transforming from military participant to subtly patriotic peacenik as manifested in his Woodstock presence.
Postwar politics on the home front also began to lean more towards Conservatism, catering toward a burgeoning and more stabilized middle class with the expansion of the American Suburbia under the Eisenhower administration. The technological advances that occurred during wartime production of military goods normalized the use of the assembly line in the production of everyday goods, thus perpetuating consumerism into the American way of life. The rise of capitalism became an inherent part of achieving the new American Dream, creating grounds for internal philosophical conflicts among Americans who saw differently than postwar Conservatives and nationalists. New Left and Liberalism politics began as a reaction of dissatisfaction with the status quo. In particular, the Beats published and compiled a body of works that manifested the collective sentiment that the people of the country were slowly destroying their sovereignty through excessive reliance on industrialization, a lack of conscientious decision-making due to machination and the commodity fetish criticized by Karl Marx. So the 1960s saw a division of political values based on the essential and conceptual conflicts between Western capitalism and socialism that dominated public opinion and discourse in the U.S.S.R. Consequently the sustained fear of communism and socialism pervaded the social sphere of the U.S. dividing the nation into separate political factions that held differing views with regard to U.S. involvement in global affairs following the establishment of NATO. Such fears of separation were addressed in the “Star-Spangled Banner,” which provided commentary about the systematic dualisms that functioned in establishing the basis for political conflict and warfare.
An example of an influential faction that caused considerable social stir was the anarchist group. Headed by Kenneth Rexroth the anarchy movement developed contemporaneous with the birth of the Beat Generation, both of which integrated the ideas of imported Eastern philosophies into postmodern literature as a critique of Western society’s egotistical tendencies and direction of progress. Along with Marxism, the anarchy movement strived for the communal ideal of the socialist utopia, self-sufficient men and women working together to achieve a classless society without the existing disparities in monetary wealth impeding social and epistemological growth. The anarchy movement sought to redefine the American Dream through a liberated morally dissident way of life, which ultimately served as a critique of nationalism and patriotism. Similarly, “Hendrix translated the fractiousness of the war at home and abroad and the damage it did to American patriotism into a war between music and noise that was at once a supreme act of defamiliarization and a stunning political critique” (Waksman 1999, 172). Through his reinterpretation of the “Star-Spangled Banner,” Jimi Hendrix coalesced two oppositional ideas: patriotism and liberation. He began his solo with pronounced single notes from the melody, but when the guitar melody coincided with the lyrics “and the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air” he introduced the electrical distortions and simulated war sounds before returning to the initial state of the melody. “Jimi’s version was the rare example of a musical performance that challenged the listener to hear the song any other way in the future. Through feedback and sustain, he had taken one of the best-known tunes in America and made it his own. For Jimi, it was a musical exercise not a manifesto” (Cross 2005, 288). Hendrix’s complex execution of the anthem by utilizing two distinct styles of guitar playing shows the marriage between the conflicting ideas of patriotism and liberation he introduced through this very distinction of playing. In this way, Hendrix establishes a sense of personal sovereignty through the transmutation of a deep-rooted cultural antecedent into a declaration of explicit revelation. At Woodstock he took the “Star-Spangled Banner” and played it as he saw fit with the current state of the nation: a nation at war abroad in a fight against communism and external threats and a nation at war within its own borders as understood through the civil disturbances between liberals and conservatives, between the counterculture and the mainstream, between the young generation and the old generation, and between Blacks and Whites.
The racial divide
The narrative that was subtly woven into the “Star-Spangled Banner” made visible the prevalent segregation of race in the nation and even within the counterculture and rock genre of music. JImi Hendrix was both revered and tormented for the fact that he was African American. During his time in Westminster, London, Hendrix came to the forefront of rock music with the Jimi Hendrix Experience, which included two other band members Noel Redding and Mitch Mitchell. Aside from Hendrix, the band and its audience was dominantly White. Interestingly, Hendrix had already disbanded from the Jimi Hendrix Experience persona and was in a transitional phase when the Woodstock promoters placed him on the lineup roster. He decided last minute to play at Woodstock with the Band of Gypsies, an all-Black band, and the way their set was played shows an obvious lack of musical unity due to inadequate practice as a group. However his “Star-Spangled Banner” solo sought to establish a kind of compromise among racial difference, suggesting that the anthem is an abstract but inherently “American” thing that many kids grow up singing (referring back to the Dick Cavett Show interview). Thus, “the ability of his music to cross the deep divide of race in America made the government fear him” (Cross 2005, 251). Following Woodstock the Black Power movement insisted that Hendrix join their civil rights cause, but he was neither nor on the situation, remaining pacifist while acknowledging the systematic oppression of Blacks in society. Instead, Hendrix preferred to associate himself entirely to his music with some respect for the fundamental aims of the counterculture.
Psychedelic music and the drug culture
Like other musicians at the time, Jimi Hendrix was no stranger to the world of psychedelic drugs and drug use in general. The use of LSD was popularized during the late 1960s when psychedelic music and art sought to recreate and simulate the hallucinogenic experience of tripping on acid as well as the experience of producing the music while under mind-altering influence. The new direction that music took became as much of an aesthetic appeal as it was valuable social commentary, and the association between the psychedelic drug culture and the music and counterculture was seen as an imminent political threat to the wartime conservative mainstream.
First synthesized by Albert Hofmann in 1938, lysergic acid diethylamide is often thought of as a key component of the hippie counterculture though LSD had rudimentary beginnings as a potentially useful therapeutic tool in the rapidly developing fields of psychology and psychiatry. While there were several people involved in the distribution and experimentation of LSD, Aldous Huxley, Ken Kesey, and Timothy Leary all wrote about their personal experiences while tripping on acid and promoted the use of the drug through publications and special events that allowed for the permeation and widespread use of LSD, making obsolete the notion of acid as a strictly scientifically-backed and objectively studied drug due to its newfound mind manifesting properties. Aldous Huxley remained conservative in the propagation of LSD, limiting access to the scientific community and serious inquiries regarding therapeutic potential and use in psychotherapy sessions. On the other hand, Ken Kesey and “acid test” parties (later popularized in Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test) showed the transition of the counterculture from Beat to Hippie, and the basis of these acid test parties was to introduce LSD into a larger social circle that included creative minds, artists, writers, and musicians. Since LSD was predominantly being used for creative expansion, Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richard’s girlfriend Linda Keith introduced Jimi Hendrix to LSD because she saw musical potential in him before he finally broke into the English rock scene. Timothy Leary was a lecturer of psychology at Harvard who conducted uncontrolled “scientific” tests in order to sensationalize the drug through an idealistic lens and to advocate the use of LSD as a tool for the betterment of humanity, something that Hendrix wished to accomplish with his music.
For Jimi Hendrix, LSD became a “lens that filtered much of the music he would create during the rest of his life. That is not to say that he created all of his work stoned; however, once he had entered the world of acid, psychedelic thinking informed what he played, the songs he wrote, and the lyrics he penned” (Cross 2005, 133). Hendrix plays on the mind expanding properties on LSD, and he dabbles on some of the themes related to drug culture in his music and persona. LSD played an important role in the counterculture based on the proposals of the aforementioned figures in part because of the dehumanizing consequences of war. No one is certain about whether Jimi Hendrix was under the influence of drugs while playing his set with the Band of Gypsies, but nonetheless the ‘Star-Spangled Banner’ is a “complex and powerful work of American art to deal with the Vietnam War and its corrupting, distorting effect on successive generations of the American psyche” (Murray 1991, 24). The reiteration of the national anthem was a moment of clarity for the masses at Woodstock, and the impact of the performance still resonates with the American spirit today.
Jimi Hendrix was a revolutionary figure in the midst of a divided nation and world, exploring the social binaries that prevailed mid-century discourse through his passion for music and talent with the guitar. Though Hendrix ultimately succumbed to the excesses of the drug culture at the golden age of 27, his influence on the counterculture and on rock music as a whole is preserved in the Woodstock documentary, in the culmination of the era that is epitomized in his rendition of the “Star-Spangled Banner.” Hendrix’s deliverance of the national anthem tells a bittersweet story of war, internal and external conflicts, destruction, and possibly hope for a better future.
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