Jimi Hendrix stands before over 200,000 people about to make musical history. It’s 1969, in the middle of the war in Vietnam. The Vietnam War was one of the bloodiest in this nation’s history, people who went to Vietnam often returned in a damaged state, if they returned at all.1 At the time, the presidential approval rating in the war was only around 39 percent, and Jimi Hendrix prepared to demonstrate his opinion of the war with his rendition of the National Anthem.2
Before Hendrix was a famous musician, he was in the military. He was honorably discharged due to an ankle injury. He had signed up for one year, however, while on duty, he couldn’t hold intelligent conversations, fell asleep, and was more focused on his guitar than his work. After he was discharged, he shifted his focus completely to his guitar. Soon after, his music career took off and he released “Hey Joe” with his band The Jimi Hendrix Experience. He quickly rose to fame, and soon after he was headlining his own tours and selling out massive shows. 3
Rain delays caused Hendrix to play on Monday at Woodstock that year. While he was offered an opportunity to perform at midnight, he chose to play the next morning. Even though Hendrix passed on the opportunity to play in front of the massive crowds that were still there at midnight, he still played for dedicated fans. However, he didn’t come for the fans, he came for the experience. Hendrix’s performance was shaped by the the current state of the Vietnam War, which was at its peak when he played. Hendrix’s music was also shaped by his complete unwillingness to conform, he refused to be a part of normal society, and he refused to support the war.4 Over 58,200 American soldiers died in the Vietnam War, and many of the people in the United States didn’t know why the nation was fighting, and many just wanted peace. This political context fueled Hendrix’s passion-filled performance which lasted over two hours, and included an encore. Encores were rare for Hendrix, and so concert-goers were ecstatic.
The performance included a medley of some of his songs, and in the middle of this is when he made musical history. Jimi Hendrix played a solo version of the National Anthem. His rendition included many parts of the song where he misplayed the song on purpose. He dragged out the notes for “the bombs bursting in air,” showing that the Star Spangled Banner talks about America’s history involving many wars. He also misplayed the notes for “home of the brave,” drawing to question why we call the men fighting a war with very little acceptance in our country heroes. Because he was in the military, he knew how the system worked, and he didn’t like it. He also added in parallels and similarities to the song “taps,” to show the amount of death the country had seen, as if to ask “is it worth it”? He purposely dropped the notes and let them come out unclean and muffled. He wanted to display that even something as patriotic as the National Anthem glorified our nation’s destructive ways of solving international issues. He did this by accenting the notes where this was prevalent and bringing attention to them. The audience had mixed reactions however. While many of them saw the passion-filled protest he was trying to portray, some of the fans were appalled by how he played the national anthem. People wrote to media networks saying that what he did was a disgrace. His performance was a polarizing force, he was able to both unite people behind him and the war protests, as well as causing people to speak up against the desecration of our National Anthem.5
Hendrix made music history because he had so many fans, and he was able to actively voice his opinion without using words. Whether you agree with his protests or not, he was very successful at gathering a crowd and influencing their thoughts.6