Jimi Hendrix Revisits His Searing Performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner”: The Dick Cavett Show (September 9, 1969)

On the final August morn­ing of Wood­stock, after a pre­vi­ous day’s down­pour had turned most of the field near the stage into mud, after an evening of blues and rock and the come­down of what­ev­er drugs had peaked every­body ear­li­er, as the sun­light crept over what was left of the 500,000 music lovers, now less than half in num­ber, wrapped in blan­kets and still vib­ing, Jimi Hen­drix took the stage. Now, the Star-Span­gled Ban­ner wasn’t his final song, but it was a finale of sorts, a coda for a three-day event where love tri­umphed for just a lit­tle while over war, that war rag­ing across the ocean in the sim­i­lar mud of Viet­nam. Hen­drix ripped the Nation­al Anthem, with its famous lyrics about bombs and its hid­den stan­zas about slaves, a new one. He turned that gui­tar into its own kind of weapon, sound­ing like those jet bombers rain­ing fire and napalm down, inter­rupt­ing Fran­cis Scott Key’s melody like a pro­tes­tor beg­ging to dif­fer at the Chica­go con­ven­tion. Hen­drix was going to send his audi­ence out into Amer­i­ca, back into soci­ety, with some­thing to chew on.

“All I did was play it. I’m Amer­i­can, so I played it,” Hen­drix tells Dick Cavett in the above clip from Sep­tem­ber 9, 1969, less than a month after the con­cert. “They made me sing it in school, so it was a flash­back, you know?”

But there was more to it than that. Hen­drix him­self was a vet­er­an. He joined the 101st Air­borne Divi­sion in 1961 under duress—it was either that or jail. He last­ed a year, dis­charged for “behav­ior prob­lems,” “lit­tle regard for reg­u­la­tions,” and “mas­tur­bat­ing in pla­toon area while sup­posed to be on detail.” Even while there, he had time to play gui­tar. Did this give him a “buffer” to lam­baste the war? Not real­ly. Right wing Amer­i­cans tend to be very touchy about the anthem, and any­thing that strays from the usu­al army band arrange­ment brings dis­trust and nasty let­ters, as Cavett notes in the video. (And being a per­son of col­or sure­ly had some­thing to do with it too.) To wit: folk singer José Feli­ciano per­formed a soul­ful ver­sion of the anthem before Game Five of the 1968 World Series in Detroit, where the Tigers played the Car­di­nals. Nowhere near the cor­us­cat­ing ver­sion of Hen­drix, but still the audi­ence, even the play­ers them­selves, were divid­ed.

Hen­drix raised the game and the ire. It was all jour­nal­ists want­ed to ask Hen­drix, hop­ing to goad him into a state­ment about the war. Hen­drix didn’t take the bait. “We’re all Amer­i­cans,” he answered at a press con­fer­ence after the con­cert. “…it was like ‘Go, Amer­i­ca!’”

But then the more telling line fol­lowed. “We play it the way the air is in Amer­i­ca today. The air is slight­ly sta­t­ic, see.”

Cavett is kinder, allow­ing Hen­drix to cor­rect him when he calls the ver­sion unortho­dox.

“No, no. I thought it was beau­ti­ful,” the mod­est musi­cian says. “But there you go, you know?”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Jimi Hendrix’s Home Audio Sys­tem & Record Col­lec­tion Gets Recre­at­ed in His Lon­don Flat

How Sci­ence Fic­tion Formed Jimi Hen­drix

Watch Rare Footage of Jimi Hen­drix Per­form­ing “Voodoo Child” in Maui, Plus a Trail­er for a New Doc­u­men­tary on Jimi Hendrix’s Leg­endary Maui Per­for­mances (1970)

Ted Mills is a free­lance writer on the arts who cur­rent­ly hosts the Notes from the Shed pod­cast and is the pro­duc­er of KCR­W’s Curi­ous Coast. You can also fol­low him on Twit­ter at @tedmills, and/or watch his films here.

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  • Summer says:

    I’m glad I watched this episode of Dick Cavett on a super ran­dom sta­tion tonight or I am not sure I would have. The inter­view was great Dick Cavett was great with Jimi and vice ver­sa. It kind of sound­ed like you added more pol­i­tics or your opin­ion of what these were think­ing almost and your inter­pre­ta­tion of the nation­al anthem which spreads words that are not nec­es­sar­i­ly fact. Maybe I’ll read it again how­ev­er that’s the vibe it left me with on the first run. Then I could be wrong.

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