Artists today seem at a loss for responding to our political situation. The news out of Washington drives them to resist and denounce. They take to the streets with signs and performance art and to social media to decry what just a year ago seemed utterly inconceivable. Comedians have been quickest to respond with late night, spot-on impersonations and commentary. Yet these reactive jabs, while hilarious and biting, are topical and thus ephemeral. Now that White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer has resigned, is there any reason to revisit Melissa McCarthy’s Saturday Night Live spots?
In a time of political crisis like ours, the art that cannot be denied is that which takes on the symbols of our institutions. Now more than ever, artists and citizens young and old need to claim our institutions — our free press and voting system, our flag and national museums and anthems — as ours.
On the eve of the 48th anniversary of the Woodstock Festival, there is no example more powerful than one of the most astonishing acts of artistic protest in our time: Jimi Hendrix’s devastating rendition of the national anthem, performed on the morning on Aug. 18, 1969, on a farm in upstate New York.
As a 15-year-old in the front row, I had the good fortune to witness this performance live; I remember it as though it were yesterday. Hendrix’ set was the culmination of the entire festival; it encapsulated the era’s exquisite beauty, glorious freedom, and virulent rage. Jimi’s “Star Spangled Banner” lifted Woodstock beyond the status of merely a great musical event into the realm of myth and history.
Hendrix offered no prelude or introduction to the song; he simply launched into the anthem out of a slowed down version of “Voodoo Chile.” But from the first moments when he hit the notes of an E chord with a downward arpeggio, it was clear he was doing something unprecedented, much more than just a loud guitar rendition. The melody devolved into aural suggestions of “rockets’ red glare,” “bombs bursting in air” and the screams of innocent men, women and children. A song that was born of patriotic celebration became, in Hendrix’s hands, a devastating re-enactment of the atrocities of the Vietnam War. When I stood there that early morning and listened to Hendrix emulate cries, dive-bombings, and explosions, I saw in my mind the massacre at My Lai; children and families burned by napalm; young men of both countries dying in the swamps and never coming home.
That morning, Hendrix delivered an aural portrait of our national, moral crisis that could not be ignored. Without saying a word, his sonic poem asserted that we have been a brutal, self-satisfied nation that causes horror and misery. In that moment, I felt deeply depressed by this truth. What hope is there for humanity if we drop bombs on unarmed civilians, if we dump fiery napalm on children? This was not a guitarist playing a song; this was a poet making art of the highest order. Even my dad, more fond of big band than The Band, called it “a great statement” when we saw the Woodstock movie together.
Hendrix’s rendition was made in the moment for the 50,000 stragglers who remained after three muddy days of music, but it was preserved on film and since seen by millions who still discover, when they watch, the transcendent power of his vision. Through his example, we see that a work of patriotic celebration, a precious institutional treasure of America, can be wrought into a cry of lamentation and an outraged call for change.
To the young musicians and fans at today’s festivals who are angry about the state of our nation, I ask: What do you love about this country? Claim it as yours, make music about it, and help us find hope.
Richard Pettengill, a theater professor at Lake Forest College and a musician in Chicago, is at work on an eyewitness account of the 1969 Woodstock Festival. Follow: @turgical.
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