Just one month after closing out Woodstock with a searing rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” Jimi Hendrix went onto The Dick Cavett Show to explain why he decided to reimagine the song. It’s seen today as one of the greatest moments of his career, but at the time some American were offended that his take on the song — which used squelching feedback to simulate the sound of exploding bombs — was a means to protest the Vietnam War.
“I don’t know, man,” an exhausted Hendrix told Cavett, shortly after admitting he had only slept eight minutes the night before. “I’m an American, so I played it. They made me sing it in school, so it was a flashback.”
Cavett informed the audience that Hendrix was once a member of the 101st Airborne Division, which should be considered when sending hate mail to the guitarist. “When you mention the national anthem and talk about playing it in any unorthodox way, you immediately get a guaranteed percentage of hate mail,” the talk show host said.
“It’s not unorthodox!” Hendrix told Cavett, cutting him off. “I thought it was beautiful.”
Hendrix’s performance at Woodstock came at a major transition point in his life since the Jimi Hendrix Experience disbanded earlier that summer. He took to the stage with his newly formed band Gypsy Sun and Rainbows, a.k.a. a Band of Gypsys — consisting of Experience drummer Mitch Mitchell, bassist Billy Cox, guitarist Larry Lee and percussionists Juma Sultan and Jerry Velez.
The irony about the legendary performance is that few people actually saw it in person since so many fans had fled the upstate New York farm by that point. He went on late because he wanted to be the final act, not realizing that would mean playing on Monday morning to a virtually empty audience. The crowd had gone from “half a million strong” to a handful of diehard fans sitting in a giant ocean of garbage.
Cavett recalled the conversation he had with Hendrix years later: “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.”