National anthem

I haven’t been writing here about the 40th anniversary of Woodstock because there has already been plenty of ink spilled on the topic. Certainly I understand the attraction. For a highly self-aware generation it was the one moment when the ideals were matched by the reality. A belief in peace and good fellowship, a vision of unhesitating friendliness and mutual helpfulness between total strangers, these were the core tenets of that generation’s political belief system. And for one weekend everybody actually got it right.

But today is something else. Today is the fortieth anniversary of Jimi Hendrix playing our national anthem on the closing morning of Woodstock. I’m not nearly old enough to have been there, but older people I knew who were at the festival have told me it was a transcendent moment – perhaps the transcendent moment – of the three day event.

What I like about the image of Hendrix playing “The Star Spangled Banner” is that it was a choice not to focus on protest of the government’s policies, as much of the popular music did at that time. The performance transcended political issues entirely, and sent a much more profound message out to the young crowd.

Whatever one’s politics, playing the national anthem at a moment like this – a defining moment of an American generation – and in a beautifully operatic and definitively rock and roll style – was a perfect gesture toward the future, a reminder that ultimately the idea of a nation as a force for good in the world must be embraced anew in each generation. If you think your parents got it wrong, then it’s up to you to try to get it right.

I love the fact that this particular concert, held during a time of such bitter national turmoil, was concluded on a note of affirmation. Not a rejection of our national identity, which would have been all too easy – but a promise to uphold and stand up for its better ideals.

3 Responses to “National anthem”

  1. Stacy says:

    I, too, was a bit young for Woodstock (but only a BIT); however, I seem to recall that the Hendrix version of the national anthem was quite controversial, viewed by many members of the older generation as quite shocking. The fact that Hendrix mixed in a snippet of “Taps” led many to see his playing of the anthem as a political protest of the Vietnam war. Don’t know if that was indeed his intention.

  2. admin says:

    Good point, but seen now on its own, playing a few notes of taps the way he did comes across as a simple acknowledgement that it was a time when the nation was enduring much sadness. Yes, many lives were being lost in Southeast Asia, but this was also right after the back-to-back assassinations of MLK and Bobby Kennedy, and the nation was still reeling from those events.

    It’s hard now to imagine a time when an older generation saw rock and roll itself as an alien form of music, but that was the case in 1969. Seen in that context, anything Hendrix played would have been suspect in some circles – even, as it happens, our own national anthem. We now think of rock and roll as our national music, but even as late as 1983 Secretary of the Interior James Watt banned the Beach Boys from playing a July 4th concert on the National Mall in D.C. on the grounds that rock concerts draw “an undesirable element”.

    You can get a better sense of Hendrix’ intention from his own mouth, in this lovely excerpt from an interview by Dick Cavett.

  3. davidmaas says:

    I think it was a very clever form of protest… akin to Ken Kesey wearing the American flag cut up and re-tailored to a shirt. Such actions were claiming national identity as a personal something that allowed for diversity, rather than a larger-than-thou consensus projected from the collective onto the original.
    Seems odd that either could have been so controversial, from today’s point of view. Definitely protests worth celebrating!

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