Saturday, August 14, 2010
Songs to Aging Children Revisited
He was to be the last performer of the Sunday show, but the rain delays prevented his appearance until Monday morning. By then most of the congregation had left. However, those that stayed were rewarded by being the first to hear Hendrix's rendition of our national anthem. That moment forever altered America's impressions of the Francis Scott Key composition.
The version has since become iconic to our modern life style. It has become a contemporary representation of America's sometimes ardent arrogance to pridefully exploit its individual interpretations of freedom. The instrumental has been used regionally to sell American trucks and to begin our nation's athletic events. It has been used in campaign advertisements and movie soundtracks. However, on Monday morning, August 18, 1969, Jimi Hendrix's flamboyant guitar performance of The Star Spangled Banner was performed to exemplify the chaos and violence of a decade that was about to end.
The 30,000 members left among the congregation- the ones that stayed for the duration-were standing before the plywood security wall a few yards from the stage. Behind them lay a barren, muddy, wasteland, pox marked with the scattering of debris. The pasture field of Max Yasgur’s dairy farm now resembled the aftermath of the final mêlée on the battlefield of Gettysburg. The stage where Hendrix stood appeared like the one Lincoln stood upon to deliver his famous address four months following that conflict.
Over a hundred years had elapsed since the days Justin Benson witnessed both monumental events in American history. Lincoln’s speech was short in length, but large in the stature of its implications. In less than five minutes, Abraham Lincoln encapsulated “a new birth of freedom… of the people, by the people, for the people.”
Jimi Hendrix was about to do the same with the strings of his guitar.
The great, great grandson of Justin Benson was emotionally stung by the first cords struck. Hendrix had ended: Voodoo Child (Slight Return), and moved into a rendition of The Star Spangled Banner. The “blessing of justice” was forever redefined. No one saluted; no one cupped their hands across their hearts. They stood mesmerized by the visualizations created in the tonal clamoring of sounds depicting the atrocities of the 1960’s. Found within the third stanza, surrounding the highlighted notes of our national anthem, Hendrix latched out with haunting reverberations.
His guitar swooshed like the sound of high-pressure water hoses tossing the black high school students to the ground, for their stand against inequality, in the schools of Birmingham, Alabama. It wailed like the gruesome screams of the eight student nurses, tortured to death by Richard Speck in Chicago, Illinois. The background drums reported like the shots that killed NAACP field secretary, Medgar Evers in Jackson, Mississippi; like the shots fired from the Texas School Book Depository, slaying President John F. Kennedy in Dallas, Texas; the shots that gunned down Malcolm X on the stage of Manhattan’s Audubon Ballroom; the shots fire by Charles Whitman, killing fourteen and wounding thirty two, from the tower on the campus of Texas University; the shots that assassinated Dr. Martin Luther King in Memphis, Tennessee, and the shots that killed Senator Robert F. Kennedy in the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, California.
Hendrix’s guitar chords screamed like the villagers in the hamlet of Mylai, Vietnam, massacred by orders from Lieutenant William Calley. They rang out like the anti- aircraft fire against the CIA invaders of Cuba during the Bay of Pigs. The notes blazed like the sound of napalm bombs annihilating the villages of Vietnam, and wailed like the sound of ambulance and patty wagon sirens echoing throughout Grant Park during the police riots of the 1968 Democratic Convention. The history of an American decade was being recited by the sounds of Jimi Hendrix’s guitar, and as the third stanza concluded, he reflected his respects by plucking the first few notes of Taps.
Sarah removed her spectacles to wipe the stream of tears running down her face. She kept them off to avoid watching the performance through rose colored glasses as Hendrix completed the final stanza of his brief tributary by striking the cords, with a fanfare for the common man, then merged into his song: Purple Haze, and an improvisation that lasted a few more minutes. He then thanked the audience and left the stage. No announcements followed- the festival ended abruptly.
Jimi Hendrix died of drug related causes just over a year later in a London hotel room. It was another indication that our generational acceptance of drugs was misguided. The governing innocents of the common sense, and the confidence that brotherhood would overcome all destructive measures, was beginning to be effectively denounced by authoritative institutions longing to regain control of their aging children. The hippie ideal was beginning to be successfully put to question.
Forty one years have elapsed seen the spontaneity of that weekend provoked the powers of the people. Forty one years and the voice of Woodstock seems to only speak nostalgically for a time that no longer exists. Benson's House speaks to those bygone eras when the songs of freedom were accepted by the common sense and the words and music were shared by the common man.Perhaps it is time to resurrect the beliefs of that era and stand for the rights and privileges of everyman; perhaps it is time to get back to the garden!