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Politics in Music: All Along the Red, White, and Blue

April 15, 2013

by J. Andrew Zalucky

Jimi Hendrix

After a taking a short break from the series, let’s dive back into our exploration of the fusion between music and politics and look to another icon of the 1960’s: Jimi Hendrix.

Jimi Hendrix embodies everything that was great about classic rock. His songs were able to explore and yet maintain a catchy sensibility that easily resonates with the listener. As a frontman, he brought together one of the greatest ensembles rock music has ever known, and his singing was nothing to sneer at either. And of course, he showed so much brilliance and vision with his guitar playing, that his songs still sound fresh and exciting today. In other words, if you find yourself being forced to listen to classic rock radio, Hendrix is one of the few artists the stations haven’t managed to kill off- because it’s almost impossible to do so.

One could go on for days about the mind-blowing creativity of the music itself, but what about the message? Great as he was at guitar, he was equally versatile as a lyricist too, and could pen a down-home blues tale as easily as any poetic, socially conscious narrative of his time.

So why have I chosen the two songs below, neither of which he actually wrote himself? Because in the case of these two songs, it’s the sound itself that embodies the message, a sound only Hendrix could create. Many people tend to forget that All Along the Watchtower was originally a Bob Dylan track. You can probably tell from the lyrics, as they employ certain symbols that would be unique more to Dylan than to Hendrix. I’ve chosen his version mainly because its ferocious, incendiary guitar work takes the song and creates a sound that perfectly reflects the equally hellish atmosphere of America in the late-1960’s. Incidentally, it was also his only official “Hit” on the American Hot 100 charts. But because of all his albums were so successful in their own right, and because he had many more hits in the UK, he’s not subject to placement in the awful “One-hit Wonders” club.

Then comes his version of our national anthem, The Star Spangled Banner, which he performed at Woodstock. As a side note, I actually find national anthems fascinating. An anthem id like a time capsule, a way of displaying the values and principles that a nation stands for, or at least claims to uphold. And because they are of course written at a certain time and place, they reflect the cultural and social milieu of the country as such. The bombastic La Marseillaise bears the revolutionary character of the 1790’s in France. God Save the Queen (or the King, depending on who’s on the throne at that moment) was written during the ascendency of Great Britain as a global power in the 1700’s and has the triumphant tone to show for it. However, as times change, shouldn’t these anthems change as well? After all, the German anthem no longer contains its jingoistic first verse (rendered in English: Germany, Germany, over all, over all, in the world), as a rather understandable repudiation of the nationalism that led to the Second World War. And in 1977, The Sex Pistols created their own version of God Save the Queen that has almost eclipsed the original in its notoriety (more about them later).

So what of The United States and our own anthem? When you think about it, perhaps it’s only proper that our anthem should have a conflicted discordant sound that Hendrix soaks it in. Francis Scott Key originally wrote it after witnessing the a British Assault on Fort McHenry during the War of 1812. And its title as our national anthem was made official by President Woodrow Wilson in 1916, on the eve of America’s entry into The First World War. Again, anthems reflect the time of their creation.

So, if one wanted a picture of America in 1969, the anthem in question could only be sincere if it accounted for the uncertainties and societal divisions of the time: Vietnam, race riots, assassinations, and the creeping feeling that post-war America was on the edge of collapse. However, notice that Hendrix, in-between the screeching and bomb-blasts, still plays all the original notes of the anthem itself- so that from the haze of violence and mistrust, there is still a hopeful America that emerges from the ashes.

Some people think of his rendition as unpatriotic or even disgraceful. But I would say rather that the true difference between the patriot and the nationalist is this: nationalism looks in the mirror and sees perfection no matter what, whereas patriotism looks in the mirror and sees imperfections, but can be honest about, and at peace with those same truths.

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