Hendrix and Woodstock: 10 Little Known Facts about the Performance That Defined the ’60s
Jimi Hendrix’s performance at Woodstock was unique in many ways in the career of the legendary musician. When most people think of Hendrix and Woodstock, they think of his amazing cacophonic rendition of The Star Spangled Banner, which would become emblematic not only of Woodstock, but of the 1960s themselves.
According to Joel Brattin, professor of literature at Worchester Polytechnic Institute, who has made an extensive study of the life and music of Hendrix, there are 10 elements of Hendrix’s performance at Woodstock that make it unique and historic.
1. Hendrix performed with a temporary band. The Jimi Hendrix Experience had broken up. Hendrix assembled a group he called Gypsy Suns and Rainbows, which included two musicians he had played with at the start of his career on the Chitlin’ Circuit in Nashville: bassist Billy Cox and guitarist Larry Lee. The group performed just twice more before disbanding.
2. It was the only Hendrix band that included a second guitarist. Larry Lee backed up Hendrix on a number of songs, played some lead on Jam Back at the House, and contributed several lead choruses to the 12-bar blues Red House. He played some lead on both Voodoo Child (slight return) and Spanish Castle Magic and sang lead on two numbers.
3. It was the only major performance that Hendrix gave in the morning. By 1969, Hendrix was a major star who had earned the traditional headliner’s position: playing last. Technical and weather delays caused the festival to stretch into Monday morning. The organizers had given Hendrix the opportunity to go on at midnight, but he opted to be the closer. One benefit of the delay: the morning light made for excellent filming conditions, which may be part of the reason this particular Hendrix performance is so well known.
4. Hendrix did not perform for half a million people. In fact, when he took to the stage at 9 a.m., the crowd, which once numbered 500,000, had dwindled to fewer than 200,000–perhaps considerably fewer. With the demands of work and school weighing on them, many of those fans waited just long enough to see Hendrix begin his set, and then departed themselves.
5. The Woodstock performance had the potential to be a disaster for Hendrix. Recordings made at the house in upstate New York where Hendrix and the Gypsy Suns and Rainbows rehearsed and of a performance they gave at the Tinker Street Cinema in Woodstock show that the band “simply could not play well together,” Brattin says. “After listening to those tapes, you would not have guessed that the Woodstock performance would be so good. The credit has to go to Jimi and the strength of his onstage presence.”
6. Woodstock was a time of transition for Hendrix. He had left behind one long-term band and not yet formed another. He was beginning a period of musical experimentation that was risky from a commercial perspective. While the Experience was dominated by white musicians (both his bandmates were white Englishmen), he was now appearing with more black performers (bassist Cox, guitarist Lee, and percussionist Juma Sultan were all African American).
7. The Star Spangled Banner was not played on its own. It was part of a medley lasting over half an hour, one of the longest such medleys. The medley also included hits like Voodoo Child (slight return) and Purple Haze, and an unaccompanied improvisation lasting nearly five minutes. Hendrix performed the national anthem as a solo in the midst of this medley.
8. It was not the first time Hendrix had performed the Star Bangled Banner–by a long shot. In fact, there are nearly 50 live recordings of Hendrix playing the national anthem, 28 made before Woodstock. They range from about a minute to more than six minutes; the Woodstock version was three minutes and 46 seconds. It was among the best, Brattin says. “And, certainly, no other version is so iconic.”
9. Hendrix performed an encore, a rarity. He almost never performed encores, but at Woodstock, despite the vanishing crowd, he did. On recordings, he can be heard considering Valleys of Neptune, which he never performed publicly, before or after Woodstock. He opted, instead, for Hey Joe, his first hit song.
10. Hendrix was not supposed to close Woodstock. Steeped in childhood memories of the song, Woodstock organizer Michael Lang wanted Roy Rogers to come on after Hendrix and play Happy Trails. The cowboy crooner declined.