A sea of faces watches the Black man on stage, mesmerizing them with a stunning guitar performance.
YouTube video captures the three-and-a-half minutes when superstar Jimi Hendrix made history with his groundbreaking delivery of the “Star Spangled Banner.” As news outlets worldwide observe the 40th anniversary of the Woodstock Music Festival, along with thousands who attended the event, Hendrix receives much of the attention.
Long before the video game, he was the original guitar hero. But his non-vocal delivery of the national anthem on the final day of Woodstock, Aug. 18, 1969 drew great criticism from some Americans. Later, it would set the pace for such other memorable “Star Spangled Banner” performances as by Marvin Gaye and, more recently, Jennifer Hudson.
"What was the controversy about the national anthem and the way you played it?” Hendrix is asked a year later by ABC talk show host Dick Cavett.
“I don’t know, man,” Hendrix answers. “All I did was play it. I’m American, so I played it. They made me sing it in school. It was a flashback.”
Critics of the performance that took place in rural New York state during the “hippie” era and amidst some of the most politically charged events that America has ever seen called it blasphemous. Hendrix’s wild, distorted not es screamed from the strings, rather than floating. Almost a minute-and-a-half into his playing, the song became completely unrecognizable with siren-like sounds and explosive filler replacing the melody. Angry traditionalists equated the improvised segment with battle sound effects that mocked the “Star Spangled Banner’s” theme.
Offering props to Hendrix in memory of Woodstock, a statement from the Gibson electric guitar company notes that “it is difficult today to imagine how much controversy this caused, as it was widely seen as a criticism of the U.S. involvement in Vietnam.”
Yet, scores among the 400,000 who attended Woodstock over four days applauded the musical masterpiece. In the decades since Woodstock, Hendrix’s national anthem has become one of the most widely praised g uitar demonstrations of his career.
Hendrix died of asphyxiation in 1970 under conditions that have been called suspicious. He was found in a London hotel room one year and one month after his Woodstock show.