The Strange Magic of Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Chile”

Poor Poly­phon­ic. He was just about to deliv­er anoth­er per­fect­ly mixed trea­tise on a clas­sic rock mag­num opus when the YouTube algo­rithm and the Jimi Hen­drix Estate stepped in to stop him before pub­lish­ing. So while you can watch this real-time expli­ca­tion of Hendrix’s more-than-just-a-jam “Voodoo Chile” with just the the graph­ics and the nar­ra­tion, you should cue up the 15 minute track how­ev­er you can (for exam­ple on Spo­ti­fy), and then press play when when the video gives the sig­nal. (This might be the first YouTube explain­er video to ask for copy­right-skirt­ing help.)

And any­way, you should have a copy of Elec­tric Lady­land, right? It’s the one where Hen­drix and the Expe­ri­ence real­ly push all the bound­aries, tak­ing rock, blues, jazz, psy­che­delia, sci-fi, everything…all out as far as pos­si­ble in the stu­dio. It’s the one that intro­duced future mem­bers of the Band of Gyp­sies. And it’s the one that hints of every­thing that might have been, if Hen­drix hadn’t passed away soon after.

Now, clas­sic rock radio usu­al­ly plays the much short­er and less laid back “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” that clos­es the album. But this essay is about the longest track on Elec­tric Lady­land, the one that ends side one. This is the track that Hen­drix want­ed to sound like a light night jam at New York club The Scene—and which he record­ed after one par­tic­u­lar night doing just that. He taped the audi­ence effects soon after. Steve Win­wood is on key­boards. Jack Casady from Jef­fer­son Air­plane plays bass. And Mitch Mitchell turns in one of his great­est per­for­mances and solos.

In the lyrics, Poly­phon­ic notes, Hen­drix con­nects the blues to his Chero­kee her­itage and to voodoo, to sex, and then beyond into sci­ence fic­tion land­scapes. The song is a self-por­trait, show­ing the past, the influ­ence, the train­ing, and then the poten­tial that music, mag­ic, and (let’s face it) LSD could bring. The band is vib­ing. Win­wood drops riffs that are more British folk than Chica­go blues. Hen­drix strays far beyond the orbit of blues, swings past it one more time on his own slight return, and then explodes into star­dust.

Polyphonic’s video also looks beau­ti­ful and per­fect­ly inter­spers­es his cri­tique with the song’s main sec­tions. It may have sound­ed like a jam, but Hen­drix care­ful­ly designed it to flow the way it does. And Poly­phon­ic fol­lows suit. It is a high­ly enjoy­able walk through a track (again find it on Spo­ti­fy here) many already know, reawak­en­ing a sense of won­der about all its inher­ent, strange genius.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How Sci­ence Fic­tion Formed Jimi Hen­drix

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

Behold Moe­bius’ Many Psy­che­del­ic Illus­tra­tions of Jimi Hen­drix

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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  • Kai says:

    There’s a Direc­tor’s Cut of Cameron Crowe’s “Almost Famous” that asks us to cue up “Stair­way to Heav­en” to accom­pa­ny the silence on screen — not youtube, but sim­i­lar just the same…

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