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Reflecting on Jimi Hendrix's Star-Spangled Banner as Woodstock's 50th anniversary approaches

By Sydney Hawkins

Abigel Szilagyi violin

Mark Clague is associate dean of undergraduate academic affairs and associate professor of musicology at the U-M School of Music, Theatre & Dance.

ANN ARBOR—Mark Clague, associate professor of musicology at the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance, is one of the nation’s foremost experts on “The Star-Spangled Banner,” among many other facets of American music. 

Clague is the founding board chair of the Star Spangled Music Foundation and editor and producer of the “Star Spangled Songbook” and its associated recording project “Poets & Patriots: A Tuneful History of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner.'”

As the 50th anniversary of the Woodstock Music Festival approaches, we talked to Clague about the history of the U.S. national anthem, Hendrix’s famous performance, and the significance of Woodstock (Aug. 15-18, 1969) in the history of American music.

Is it true that Jimi Hendrix’s famous performance of The Star-Spangled Banner inspired your research and work?

Clague: There’s a documentary film about Woodstock that really climaxes at Hendrix’s famous performance of the anthem, and I use that performance to kick off a class that I teach on the history of American music. A decade ago, this prompted students to ask me questions about where the anthem came from and how it was sung originally, so I started to look into early arrangements of the song and why Francis Key Scott wrote it. I quickly found out that the version we hear today is pretty different than Key’s original. There are literally hundreds of different lyrics to this tune that we know as “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and today’s idea that this is a sacred hymn to the nation that’s immutable and that can only be done in certain ways, is historically false. Like Key and many other lyricists throughout U.S. history before him, Hendrix’s performance reclaims the song for a new era—for young people in the countercultural ’60s, and also for African Americans. His performance is a snapshot on the country on Aug. 18, 1969—of the hope and horror that people were feeling.

In what ways had people before Hendrix “claimed” the national anthem? 

Clague: The interesting thing about a song as a patriotic symbol—unlike a flag that remains unchanged as you look at it over time—is that a song has to be brought to life through performance. In the 19th century, those performances were ephemeral, they weren’t recorded in any way. It’s in the 19th century when people started the tradition of shaping Key’s song to their own image by, say, singing the song in their native languages or by changing the lyrics to support social causes—like the suffrage movement or abolitionism. What happens next is that the symbolic weight put on “The Star-Spangled Banner” by World War I changed our culture. At basically the same time, the invention of recording by Thomas Edison made it possible to make individual performances permanent. As a result of both symbolism and technology, the story of the Anthem in the 20th century became more about the way one performed it. Hendrix’s performance is arguably the most powerful example.

So you’re saying that there have been many different performances over the years—what is it about Jimi Hendrix’s performance that makes it particularly special?

Clague: What’s fascinating to me about it is that it’s so self-contradictory. On one hand it’s a celebration of America—he plays all the notes in tune and in time; it’s a faithful rendition of the anthem. It expresses hope and expands upon the notion that Woodstock represents a revolution and that young people were going to reinvent the world—that rock was going to make a new nation. And on the other hand, you have a performer who’s at a countercultural festival on electric guitar. He’s an African American, mixed-race artist who came from a traditional black rhythm and blues background—but he was really doing psychedelic experimental rock, which was a white thing. At the time, the Civil Rights Movement had won progress and was mired in controversy. People had just lived through the race riots of the ’60s and the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy. So you have a mixture of reverence and revolution at the same time. His performance is both a protest and a fireworks display. And that’s what makes it so interesting to teach with.

What do you think that Hendrix was trying to express in his particular anthem version?

Clague: That performance is so famous that everybody thinks that Hendrix had this ecstatic Woodstock moment of improvisatory revelation—that he performed “The Star-Spangled Banner” just this one time. The Woodstock documentary film was also was so influential that this one performance dominates our cultural memory.  In fact, the Woodstock Banner is just the midpoint in about a two-year-long obsession that Hendrix had with the anthem. He played it about 70 times, starting with the year before Woodstock and ending only with his death in September 1970. And so that one performance was actually just a moment in an ongoing personal struggle that Hendrix himself felt about who he was as an American. A lot of mainstream people at the time thought  that he was a hippie or a druggie and that the anthem was simple, mindless anger. While Hendrix famously enjoyed that lifestyle, I think it is inaccurate to say that his work was simply instinctual or improvised without careful thought and intent. His Banner is a complex and changing commentary that is deeply engaged with the ideas and issues of not only the ’60s but that still confront us today. I believe that Hendrix was a really thoughtful cultural critic. His music was about engaging with the world and answering the politics of the time. Bringing that story out is part of what excites me about his music.

The original Woodstock Music Festival will celebrate its 50th anniversary in Aug. 2019. Photo by Amy Sancetta | AP.

What is the significance of Woodstock against the backdrop of the civil rights movement and the politics of the time?

Clague: Woodstock was a mixed-race event, and that was part of the vision of utopia it created. It was planned as a paid festival but an overwhelming mass of people showed up and broke the gates down, making it a free festival. There was a lot of worry about health and safety and just keeping the crowd under control. The notion of 300,000 kids in a farm field—well, people were scared. They were scared of rock ‘n’ roll because of its volume and its intensity and its association with youthful energy and change. And yet, Woodstock was indeed about peace, love and happiness. There was self-policing, and people took care of each other and it actually didn’t become a big safety disaster. It became a symbol of a way forward for the whole country of people supporting and caring for one another. Ironically Hendrix’s Woodstock Banner took place, in a sense, after the festival was over. Not only was it Monday morning the day after the official end date, but Hendrix had already announced his final song and played it. The anthem follows and I think it was in some way Hendrix’s expression of hope that such a positive event would lead the way to a better future for the nation. In the ’70s, that future was not happening and Hendrix’s anthem renditions become more anti-war and more frustrated and ironic.

Was there any kind of uproar about Hendrix’s anthem?

Clague: People, like they do today, got upset when it was performed in a nontraditional way. Hendrix was in no way the first one to run afoul of public opinion here. A really famous nontraditional performance of the song took place the year before Woodstock at the 1968 World Series in Detroit when José Feliciano performed it. That was nationally broadcast and because it was the World Series, a lot of people were watching it live, so the backlash was quick. Woodstock wasn’t televised, and so that backlash came on gradually over time. Since he was the last performer, the crowd had also dwindled from 300,000 to around maybe 30,000, so only a portion of the actual audience witnessed it. The documentary about Woodstock was released in March of 1970, and that was really the first time a lot of people saw it or reacted to it. The film is what people remember, and today that performance can be found easily on Youtube, so it’s alive again 50 years later.

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