The Woodstock Music and Art Fair, a celebration of peace and music, was staged amid the tumult in the United States created by the Vietnam War. But when Henry Diltz gazed out at Max Yasgur’s alfalfa field on Monday morning, August 18, 1969, a different conflict came to mind.
“It was just a soggy, muddy field, with piles of wet, soggy sleeping bags,” said Diltz, who was the festival’s official still photographer. “It kind of reminded me of one of those Matthew Brady Civil War photos, a battlefield filled with dead horses and dead soldiers. The wet sleeping bags on this barren landscape looked like they had dead blobs of humanity on them.”
Diltz had this perspective from the side of the stage, as he watched Jimi Hendrix perform the final set of the weekend. Hendrix’s manager, Michael Jeffery, had negotiated to have his client close the entire festival, since he was arguably the premier act in rock music at the time, and Hendrix was scheduled to do so on Sunday night. But the elements of peace, love, drugs, music and inclement weather weren’t compatible with the concept of tight scheduling, and Hendrix didn’t come on until roughly 8 a.m. on Monday.
By the time he took the stage, the festival’s herd had thinned considerably. Estimates put attendance at the event’s peak at over a half-million, but there were only about 30,000 to 40,000 stalwarts remaining on Monday morning when Hendrix performed. Less than two months before, at the Denver Pop Festival, Hendrix played his final gig with the Jimi Hendrix Experience, which also consisted of Mitch Mitchell on drums and Noel Redding on bass. At Woodstock, Hendrix had a new band called Gypsy Sun and Rainbows, featuring Mitchell, bass player Billy Cox (an old Army buddy), rhythm guitarist Larry Lee and percussionists Juma Sultan and Jerry Velez.
Diltz said he slept inside a station wagon parked near the stage and woke up to the sound of Hendrix and his band. “These guys were onstage with colorful scarves on their heads,” he recalled. “They certainly looked like a band of gypsies.”
Hendrix and his new group tore off many favorites, including “Hear My Train A Comin’,” “Red House” and “Foxy Lady.” After performing “Voodoo Child,” Hendrix and the band launched into a brief bit of improvisation.
“You can leave if you want to. We’re just jammin’, that’s all,” he told the crowd. After another minute or so of free-form musical expression, it happened: Hendrix launched into his own interpretation of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
“It was the most riveting moment,” Diltz remembered. “Just that single guitar, so piercing and so pure. At the time, there was just a knot of people on the hill. Those huge speakers bouncing sound off the hillsides, and an eerie, silent, pre-dawn, misty kind of silence. The notes reflected back again.”
‘It was shocking to everybody’
Michael Lang was one of four promoters who staged Woodstock. He and his business partner Artie Kornfeld had an idea for “An Aquarian Exposition” unlike anything that had occurred before in popular culture. They enlisted investors John Roberts and Joel Rosenman to provide the financial backing.
But it was Lang, who had staged a large outdoor music festival in Miami the year before that also featured Hendrix, who was the spiritual leader of the Woodstock project as well as its primary hands-on producer and trouble-shooter. He remembered that he tried unsuccessfully on Sunday around noon to convince Hendrix to close the festival that night at midnight. Instead, Hendrix opted to hang out and listen to all the other acts.
“When he got on the stage, he didn’t seem all that fazed that he was looking out at such a small portion of the crowd,” said Lang, whose memoir about his experiences, “The Road to Woodstock,” is out this month. “Everybody was tuned in.
“When he played ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,’ it was shocking to everybody.”
The jarring, uplifting, haunting, energizing anthem was done at times in straight single notes, but the entire song is spiced with trademark Hendrix innovations, especially the use of amplifier feedback, sometimes to convey the sounds of war — bombs falling, jets overhead, perhaps even the cries of human anguish. At one point, Hendrix interrupts the anthem to play “Taps,” then resumes.
‘I remember people literally tearing their hair out’
When he began shooting what would eventually become “Woodstock,” the Academy Award-winning documentary of the festival, director and cameraman Michael Wadleigh said he started out with 17 or 18 cameras.
And Wadleigh was operating one of them. “I certainly remember feeling tremendous pressure and responsibility when he started ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,’” he explained. “If you look at the footage closely, he looked right over at me as if to say, ‘Listen to this. You’re gonna love it.’ It was an amazing version.”
Wadleigh was just relieved that Hendrix’s performance at Woodstock was preserved. He recalled that his camera motor was becoming red hot and he was worried it could quit at any time. He also said that because Hendrix’s Marshall amps were so loud, he couldn’t hear if the camera motor was working or not while he was filming.
“If it weren’t as powerfully photographed, it may not be as famous as it is today,” he said. “I remember people literally tearing their hair out. I looked out with one eye and I saw people grabbing their heads, so ecstatic, so stunned and moved, a lot of people holding their breath, including me.
“No one had ever heard that. It caught all of us by surprise.”
Some loved it, some didn’t
The reaction to the anthem was strong but mixed. Some thought it was brilliant, others considered it disrespectful. These days, an unorthodox interpretation of “The Star-Spangled Banner” is usually met with a shrug, since Americans have seen all kinds. But when Hendrix performed at Woodstock in 1969, at the height of the Vietnam War, the idea of deviating from the traditional when delivering the national anthem was sure to raise eyebrows.
Before Hendrix, perhaps the most controversial rendition occurred before Game 5 of the 1968 World Series at Tiger Stadium in Detroit, when Jose Feliciano, then 23, performed a rousing, soulful version of it on acoustic guitar. The stadium’s switchboard received over 2,000 calls, and NBC also received hundreds of angry calls. Feliciano said later it brought his career to a temporary halt, that for a while radio stations refused to play his records.
The reaction to Hendrix’s version was more difficult to gauge, since the festival was not televised and the full impact of it would not be experienced by non-attendees until the film was released seven months later, and until the soundtrack album was released two months after that.
But it made an impact, to those who were there and to millions who weren’t.
While Hendrix performed at Woodstock, rock critic Greil Marcus was in a car headed home with Sha Na Na, a '50s doo-wop group that played right before Hendrix. He missed “The Star-Spangled Banner,” but recalled the lingering effect it had.
“It is significant in American discourse, whether cultural or political,” Marcus said. “I’ve listened to the performance many times. It’s so complex, with so many different layers of disgust and celebration and alienation and engagement. There’s really no way to just characterize it as a protest against the war. It’s certainly that. But he’s also saying, ‘I’m a citizen of this country, too.’”
Marcus added that at the time the festival as a whole was getting such an enormous amount of media attention that “The Star-Spangled Banner” was overlooked and not appreciated and commented on until the movie came out. And he pointed to a film produced and released many years later — “Masked and Anonymous,” co-written by Bob Dylan, which came out in 2003, largely to negative reviews — as an indicator of the impact of Hendrix’s anthem.
He cited a particular scene in which Jeff Bridges, who plays a bombastic rock critic, pontificates as he tries to interview Dylan’s character.
“He goes into this speed rap about what Jimi Hendrix’s ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,’ is all about,” Marcus explained, “that it was not a protest, it was not negative, but rather a cry of despair and love, and that what it said was, ‘I’m a native son. This belongs to me, the anthem and the country.’
“But you have to understand that those words coming out of the rock critic, Dylan wrote them. That was how Dylan felt about Hendrix’s performance.”
‘I’m American, so I played it’
Some of the acts that played Woodstock went on Dick Cavett’s television show afterward. One of them was Hendrix, who was a guest shortly after the festival and then again much later. When Cavett, who has collected his interviews on his “Rock Icons” DVD, asked him about the controversy surrounding his anthem, Hendrix replied:
“I don’t know, man. All I did was play it. I’m American, so I played it. I used to sing it in school. They made me sing it in school, so it was a flashback.” Cavett interrupted the interview to point out to the audience, “This man was in the 101st Airborne, so when you send your nasty letters in …” Cavett then explained to Hendrix that whenever someone plays an “unorthodox” version of the anthem, “You immediately get a guaranteed percentage of hate mail.”
Hendrix then respectfully disagreed with Cavett’s description. “I didn’t think it was unorthodox,” he said. “I thought it was beautiful.”
Asked recently to look back at that time and that interview, Cavett’s memory was hazy. But after looking at the clip again, Cavett said: “I suppose I could have added that since we somehow acquired the most dismal, virtually unsingable dirge of a national anthem of any known nation, we should decorate Hendrix for turning it into music.”
Lang, who today is involved in concert promotion and artist management, remembers Hendrix’s anthem in the context of the times. “Because he interpreted ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ it gave it a meaning that was closer to where we were all coming from,” Lang said. “There wasn’t anti-American sentiment. It was anti-war sentiment. He brought it home to us in a way nobody ever had.”
Diltz, the still photographer, remembers Hendrix playing in front of a relatively small throng gathered on a huge muddy hillside bereft of a single strand of alfalfa. He also recalls the smell of garbage that had sat there for three or four days. “It was an eerie, eerie moment,” he said.
But most of all, he remembers standing to the right of Jimi Hendrix, next to the wall of amps, “as close as you can get to Jimi without being right there on stage with him.”
“The moment when he played ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,’” Diltz said, “kinda stopped everything.”
Michael Ventre is a frequent contributor to msnbc.com.