Bringing Together St. Olaf & Carleton Students
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, this paper proposes that the dominant mythology surrounding the Woodstock Banner has distorted our understanding of what was Hendrix’s two-year fascination with “The Star-Spangled Banner” from August 1968 to 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 nation that pictured not only 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 lyric while exploding this text to question who is American and how one should practice the art of citizenship. This paper reconsiders 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 has coalesced as a tone poem, 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 mud and rain behind—but through the 1970 documentary film Woodstock, for which Hendrix’s anthem performance serves as narrative and musical apex. 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.” The analysis concludes that the Woodstock Banner is an optimistic outlier—less a musical vision of dystopia than a statement of protest catalyzing hope toward a future America shaped by psychedelic activism.
Mark Clague’s writing and research appears in the journals American Music, Black Music Research, College Music Symposium, Michigan Quarterly Review, and Opera Quarterly, as well as in the books American Orchestras in the Nineteenth Century, Disciplining the Arts: Teaching Entrepreneurship in Context, and Teaching Music in Higher Education. He published The Memoirs of Alton Augustus Adams: First Black Bandmaster of the United States Navy with the University of California Press. In the recent bicentennial year of the U.S. national anthem, he presented his research at the national meeting of the American Musicological Society, the Smithsonian Museum of American History, the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles, and in recital with baritone Thomas Hampson at the U.S. Library of Congress and wrote a halftime show for the University of Michigan Marching Band. Recent Anthem history articles have appeared in the publications of the American Choral Directors Association and Chorus America as well as the Journal of the Society for American Music. He founded the Star Spangled Music Foundation, built the website starspangledmusic.org, created a new edition of Arturo Toscanini’s arrangement of the anthem for the New York Philharmonic and produced the recording project Poets & Patriots: A Tuneful History of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Professor Clague served as city & institutions editor for the New Grove Dictionary of American Music, Second Edition and is editor-in-chief of the George and Ira Gershwin Critical Edition. He was recently named co-editor-in-chief of Music of the United States of America—a series of scholarly editions of American music sponsored by the American Musicological Society.