Anthem controversy

50 years ago, at the legendary Woodstock festival, Jimi Hendrix demolished the American national anthem: The Star-Spangled Banner.

Woodstock, August 1969: During his gig at the most famous festival in rock history, Jimi Hendrix suddenly starts playing the American national anthem on his electric guitar. Oops! Is he trying to show his patriotism? The irritation that sweeps the hippie audience only lasts for a few seconds. Then they realize that Hendrix has exactly the opposite in mind. Let’s remember: The American national anthem was born in 1814 during the British-American War. According to the myth, lyricist Francis Scott Key was inspired to write the words when, after a battle near Baltimore, he saw the American flag, the ‘star-spangled banner’, still waving above the US fort. But when Hendrix plays the anthem, nothing remains intact and there’s no feeling of pride at all. The exceptional black musician is acoustically tearing the US flag apart. And that’s not all: With sound effects like tremolo, feedback and extreme pitching, he is simulating machine gun fire, alarm sirens and bloodcurdling screams. In doing so, he is reminding his listeners of the brutal war during which the original anthem was written – and using it to voice a resounding critique of the Vietnam war. In this version, America is not the “land of the free and home of the brave” but a nation of warmongers who interfere in distant conflicts, throwing napalm bombs and „producing“ countless victims. The heroic lyrics are being masked – you could also say: They are being drowned out by the instrumental battle noise.

Of course staunch patriots and the American establishment interpreted this kind of destructive act as an insult. Especially in the American South, people threatened to become violent if he were to play his version of the national anthem onstage. Hendrix also polarized as a black artist and as a symbol of integration: In his bands, for example in several Experience line-ups, it was taken for granted that black and white musicians would play side by side. And there were many white women in his entourage who didn’t give a hoot about racial segregation. This led to drastic reactions on the one hand, and to changing attitudes on the other. In her essay ”Vodoo Child: Jimi Hendrix and the Politics of Race in the Sixties“ historian Lauren Onkey narrates how, especially in the South, the band was denied hotel rooms and access to restaurants. Their status as a well-known ”integrated band“ simultaneously laid bare the opportunities and limits of racial integration. As the author explains, Hendrix ultimately achieved some success when it came to emancipation: ”His extensive touring claimed the right of an African American to play with white musicians and consort with white women whenever and wherever he chose.“

In March 2019 my new book Provokation! Songs, die für Zündstoff sorg(t)en was published. It presents about 70 hit songs from the last 100 years which caused a stir in their time, and some of which are being discussed even today – from Rock Around the Clock to Relax, from Anarchy in the U.K. to Punk Prayer, from the ”British Invasion“ to ”shock rock“. The last chapter of the book explains some basic lyrical techniques and answers 26 FAQs around the topic of controversial songs. Due to issues of space, this little Jimi Hendrix piece didn’t make it into the printed version of the book.