Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Jimi Hendrix and “The Star-Spangled Banner”

by Mark Clague

NOTE: The most recent lecture in the series co-sponsored by the American Musicological Society and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum took place on 25 March 2015. Mark Clague's title was “'This Is America': Jimi Hendrix’s Reimaginings of the 'The Star-Spangled Banner' as Social Comment for Woodstock and Beyond.“ We present it here on the occasion of the holiday weekend.

Timeline: The video is 1 hour, 30 minutes, 35 seconds long. Contents are as follows:
01:03: Introduction by Andy Leach, Director of the Library and Archives
04:31: Introduction by Jason Hanley, Director of Education & Public Programs
08:53: Clague’s lecture
58:18: Q&A

Clague writes:

An act of both patriotism and protest, Jimi Hendrix’s ideology-shattering rendition of the U.S. national anthem at Woodstock in 1969 is only the best known of more than sixty Banner performances by the iconic psychedelic guitarist. Analyzing both studio takes and commercial releases, as well as surviving live-audience tapes featuring not only anthem renditions but the stage banter Hendrix used to introduce them, I propose that the dominant mythology surrounding the Woodstock Banner has distorted the understanding of what was Hendrix’s two-year fascination with “The Star-Spangled Banner” from August 1968 until his death. Rather than a single, soaring improvisation, Hendrix’s renditions draw from a pre-composed set of sonic possibilities in which melody, form, quotation, pictorialisms, and ornament were reimagined week-to-week and night-to-night as a changing portrait of America that pictured not only national developments in the struggle for civil rights and the war in Vietnam, but local histories, happenings, and even personal details from Hendrix’s biography.

I argue that as an ongoing process of commentary, the many Hendrix Banners move deftly between protest and patriotism. At once, Hendrix’s reconceptions show great sensitivity to Francis Scott Key’s lyrics while exploding this text to question who is American and how one should practice the art of citizenship. I reconsider the Woodstock Banner in context of Hendrix as a political commentator by comparing this singular, well-known version to dozens of lesser-known renditions that shed light on his thought and artistry. I argue that Hendrix’s Banners start as an offshoot of the eulogistic Civil War bugle call “Taps,” and develop in an aesthetic of free jazz as a wide-ranging pictorial improvisation. By Woodstock, Hendrix’s Banner had coalesced as a set of compositional possibilities, offering an eloquent statement that resonated deeply with the counter-cultural energies of Woodstock as youth utopia.

Yet most fans experienced the Woodstock Banner not at the festival—which ran behind schedule such that Hendrix’s closing set did not occur until Monday morning, after most had left the muddy rain-soaked festival—but through the 1970 documentary film Woodstock, for which Hendrix’s anthem performance serves as a philosophical and musical climax. For Hendrix’s 1970 The Cry of Love tour, which followed the film’s release, his Banner renditions became increasingly calcified as an echo of Woodstock, but retained a political edge as part of an explicitly anti-war closing set, including “Machine Gun” and “Purple Haze.” My analysis concludes that the Woodstock Banner is an optimistic outlier—less a musical vision of dystopia than a balanced expression of democracy in action and a statement of hope toward a future America shaped by psychedelic activism.

Mark Clague is Associate Professor of Musicology at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and executive editor of MUSA: Music of the United States of America. His recent article on the same subject for the Journal of the Society for American Music is HERE.

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